Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Master Teacher Update

Since I wrote my earlier comment on the Master Teacher idea, President Obama has come out with his own. His idea is to re-assign "good" teachers to high-needs schools; his thinking is that if a teacher succeeds here, s/he will succeed there. I have with two, related, reasons this is the wrong approach.

Firstly, teaching and learning is context-dependent. I am not a black woman so I cannot know the challenges facing such students. I am not a first-generation immigrant, nor did I have immigrant parents who had not gone to school themselves or who did not speak English, so I  so I cannot empathize with the challenges facing those students.

I have had very good examination results with high-ability, older students who seem to like and to respond to my personality and to my approaches to teaching and learning. Put me in front of elementary students and I have little effect. Horses for courses. Context-dependent.

Teaching and learning depends in the teacher-learner relationship, and relationships need common ground which is of course context-dependent. The fewer commonalities, the fewer chances of the necessary relationships.

The President's unspoken assumption is the McDonalds approach. Standard approaches, standard programs, standard inputs and of course standard outputs. The problem with this is that even McDonalds varies with the context. Beer with your Big Mac in France, mayonnaise with your fries in Belgium, rice buns in Japan. I even read yesterday of black Big Macs in China.

What works in one environment may not work in another, and can be guaranteed not to work in all. Note I am not touching the question of how to incentivate teachers to move from one context to another; not being military they cannot be assigned to a base and we know money is not a prime motivator for those who become teachers.

Secondly, moving such a teacher creates a vacancy and clearly his/her replacement would not be as good. If s/he were, s/he would also be moving. So students and families who reasonably expect to have Teacher X next year now find themselves not only without, but also with an inferior substitute. They will no doubt feel punished and are likely to react accordingly

I have heard of a similar proposal, I think from New Zealand, where the Master Teacher spends two days a week in another school as a mentor to "weaker" teachers. Thus, his/her students still have him.her for 60% of the time and s/he still prepares plans and activities for the other 40%.

The Master Teacher is now asked to do an extra 40%, not counting the mentoring demands which will no doubt require separate planning, and preparation, and traveling time, and meetings, and reports ...

This is however not the problem. The problem is that the school district cannot afford to have a 40% teacher on payroll, so the Master Teacher will be replaced by a substitute and the way this inevitably works, the substitute will differ each time. Thus, the lessons are unlikely to occur as planned, meaning the Master Teacher is likely to plan busy work (aka "sub-proof") and tests and so on, ie exactly those things s/he eschewed when becoming a Master Teacher.

Worse, the necessary relationship for teaching and learning to occur will not develop for 40% of the time, and will have been damaged for the other 60%. These students will suffer and will not perform as well as their predecessors. The Master Teacher will no longer be teaching masterfully. Oh, and these students and parents will no doubt feel punished ...

The solution? Recruit better, train better, support and develop better, appraise and evaluate better, and reward better.

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