What Teachers Want

Asking what teachers want is sort of like asking the age-old What Do Women (or Men) Want? The answer varies according to the prevailing wind, but Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s School probably gets closer to the heart of the matter than the anecdotal comments normally batted around in discussions of the U.S. school system. The complete survey, which was sponsored jointly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Scholastic, Inc., can be found here, and a quick breakdown of some of what Arizona teachers surveyed think can be found here. More than 40,000 teachers took part in the phone-and-online survey. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 7.2 million teachers in the U.S. in 2008, including post secondary and this Washington Post story on the survey says an estimated 3.3 million are K-12 public school

In a nutshell, the survey revealed that teachers want, among other things:

  1. More supportive principals
  2. More planning time
  3. Clear, nationwide standards
  4. To use several measures, not just one standardized test, to gauge student performance.
  5. To use several measures to gauge teacher performance
  6. To close the gap between education at school and children’s home lives to boost their achievement.

There is far too much in the survey to go into in this post, so I’m going to focus on three results: 71 percent of teachers surveyed said monetary rewards for teacher performance would have moderate or no impact on student achievement; when given a list of five possible reasons students don’t graduate ready to succeed in a 2 -to-4-year college, the majority of teachers (34 percent) said “lack of student motivation”; and when asked what has the greatest impact on student achievement, 82 percent said “effective and engaged” teachers were “absolutely essential.”

Now, some of you may not see the contradictory nature of those results. But they jumped out at me because they’ve been tied together in the seven texts I’ve thus far had to read in my teacher-prep program. Lack of student motivation and effective/engaged teaching, particularly, have been presented over and over as a hand-in-glove sort of thing. To wit: without effective and engaged teachers you will not have motivated students. Put another way, effective, engaged teachers know how to motivate students. Admittedly, there are those kids – more and more every day it seems – who arrive at school without their basic human needs having been met and so motivating them is a Sisyphean task. Still, folks like yours truly are evidence it can be done, as I was one of those “troubled, at-risk” students saved by effective teachers who went out of their way to engage me.

Ergo, I’m a little disturbed to see teachers effectively blaming students for their lack of motivation. In my classes, I’m being taught that it is MY job to get those kids motivated, no excuses accepted. Yet, as I’ve heard over and over from the really good teachers in town, it is quite common for mediocre teachers to point the finger at students for not trying hard enough instead of considering that something might be wrong with their methods. (They are encouraged in this frame of mind by teachers unions that often make excuses more than offer solutions.)

I heard about the aforementioned survey yesterday when I was, ironically, coming back from spending 90 minutes in the classroom of one of the best math teachers in Southern Arizona. I was observing Chris Yetman (all hail the man who brought the words “nerd” and “cool” together in a way that leaves students fighting to get into his AP calculus classes) as part of my educational psychology class, but the observation isn’t what taught me the most. Instead, it was Yetman chatting with me honestly about his 22 years teaching math and coaching his fourth in the nation (!) Academic Decathlon team.

Yetman, who makes his students laugh when he says – in response to their whining about a difficult problem – “C’mon, where’s the love? Where’s the ‘calculus completes me’ attitude?”, is a rarity among the really intelligent: He’s humble and down-to-earth. He doesn’t mind helping those who know less about the profession (aka me) and he has no problem pointing out what is obvious to most parents, all students, and pretty much every education reporter I know: There are a lot of mediocre teachers out there. They get by with what Yetman calls a trick of teaching – they throw everything back at the students.

For instance, if every student in a class fails a test, it is because the students didn’t study – not that the teacher didn’t present the material well enough. If students aren’t “getting it” and come to get help, these mediocre types tell the students to read the text more carefully – instead of actually TEACHING them the material. If students are bored stiff and begin to act out, the mediocre teacher doesn’t reflect on what he might do to present more “engaging” lessons – he just retires to the teacher’s lounge and complains about “kids these days.”

“They are always talking about conflict,” Yetman said, “they are rarely talking about learning. And they don’t like kids that much.” Sigh.

So, when the survey says that the most necessary thing for high student achievement is effective, engaged teachers, but also reveals that many teachers think lack of student motivation is to blame for poor student achievement, one has to wonder: Are those teachers connecting the dots?Methinks maybe not.

As for the final point – those 71 percent of teachers who said merit-based pay would have moderate to no impact on student achievement, let me break it down a bit: 41 percent said it would have a moderate impact and thirty percent said no impact. Fourty-one percent is quite a number. Based on what I just discussed regarding mediocre teachers, I don’t think it is any surprise that 30 percent said no impact: Those are most likely the teachers who are “mediocre” and merit-based pay wouldn’t help them at all. In fact, it might hurt them.

The argument against merit-based pay is often that teachers wonder how performance would be measured. That is a valid concern, especially considering how performance is currently measured (primary focus on standardized test scores and a once/twice a year principal evaluation). But in the end, I think we should all admit one thing: In any school, in any district, at any time, a person can walk onto campus and ask the students, “Who are the three best teachers here?” Then, they can do the same with the teachers, the parents, and the administrators and, in the vast majority of the cases, the answers will be the same. It is no secret who the really good teachers are; the only secret is why we aren’t paying them way more than the mediocre ones.


5 thoughts on “What Teachers Want

  1. Actually, I might tend to agree with the teachers as far as student motivation goes.  I had a hard time keeping myself motivated in school, and it took me quite a while to get straightened out.  This lack of motivation was despite truly Herculean efforts by many of my teachers.  I look back at my school years and I know I owe these teachers quite a bit, and I certainly know I owed them a lot more than the effort I gave them then.  I didn’t want to be at school.  I wanted to be at home playing video games.  I wanted to be out playing basketball.  I had other things I wanted to do and I just wasn’t that interested in school.  I can’t say the teachers weren’t engaged, because they certainly were, above and beyond the call of their job.
    I was lucky in that I got myself straightened out, and I’m not digging ditches for a living or getting in trouble.  Not all the kids out there who don’t want to be in school fare so well.  As a teacher, you can only do your best, and hope that the students take things to heart.  Sometimes it takes years before that really happens, so don’t ever think your efforts are wasted.

    1. Aaron:
      What an encouraging post for teachers! Have you contacted your former teachers to thank them for their efforts?

  2. I appreciate your article, as it allows for discussion and was very well written.  I agree with some points regarding mediocre teachers, however, I have to disagree with a couple of your points regarding student engagement (always) being a fault of teachers and the idea of merit pay.
    First, as a student who was also “at-risk” I had some amazing teachers (elementary and secondary) who busted their butts for me.  However, I did not make any changes until I was ready.  It was completely my fault.  I had things happening in my life that prevented them from being successful with me while I was in their classes.  With that said, I did make the changes because of them, but they would not have received any merit pay for their success, as it occurred many years after they put the work in.  Also, as a teacher, I recognize that some students are ready to be motivated to learn; while others are ready to be treated kindly, shown socially acceptable behavior, or just ready to be accepted for everything they are and are not yet ready for.  And, I do not believe this is my way of making an excuse for my “failures”; it is simply my reality.
    Now, as a teacher, I believe the idea of merit pay is a slap in the face, and I think any teacher who is putting their all into it should feel the same.  I understand that some people (myself included) want exceptional teachers to get paid more, but I do agree with the 30% who say merit pay wouldn’t make a difference, as exceptional teachers are making it happen without merit pay used as a carrot.  What merit pay says to me is that I’m not working as hard as I can to help my students succeed; that if I was offered more money, I would work harder at being a better teacher.  Plus, is there merit pay for teaching a student to respect those around him/her?  To stop hitting?  To not fear every man because of past experiences?  If not, merit pay seems a little biased as to what success is for each individual child and their teachers.
    Again, I appreciate your piece and the opportunity for discussion it allows us.

    1. Matt: You bring up a great point about merit pay that I had not thought of – merit pay for teaching a student to not hit, etc. Teachers DO do so much that the rest of the society seems to be unaware of. (Sorry for ending that sentence in a preposition!) I remember so little of my own schooling b/c of my homelife being dangerous – but I remember the teachers telling me that if I stayed in school, if I graduated, I wouldn’t repeat my raising. Those teachers never got merit pay, but they truly saved my life.
      And I think it is phenomenal that you take responsiblity for not trying when you were a student. It was your choice – and maybe that is truly the case for a good number of unmotivated students. I wish there was some way to research that – get some numbers behind the stories, you know? Did you see the NYTimes story re: the data behind test scores? It showed that the only difference between high test scores and low test scores (and being able to read competently by third grade and not being able to) was the teacher. Consistently, certain teachers do well, no matter what the make up of their classes, and others struggle, no matter what the make up of their classrooms (demographic, SES, etc.).

  3. Your comments relate to public school teachers in public schools in the US.  In fact, most education occurs outside the US public school approach, and you may find results and perspectives are different. Many (most??) of Tucson’s best schools are actually independent, and they way they approach education is different than the parochial schools which is different than the public.  We left an “excelling” public school for the International School and the difference is night and day.  Of course our kids were not at the same level, but they were young enough they could catch up.  IST teachers have freedom to teach and are directly accountable to us, the parents.  They can vary approaches, routines,  and methods.  They are the opposite of what you present as “typical” above.  Perhaps you could broaden your perspective and look at some of these other approaches.

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