Thursday, June 18, 2009

Good teachers have to be selected for personal qualities. No teacher education will make everyone a good teacher

What makes some teachers successful with so-called “unteachable” kids and others not?

One of the best explanations comes from Martin Haberman, a leading authority on preparing teachers for urban, poor schools and developer of the National Teacher Corps. Hundreds of school systems nationwide use the selection criteria devised by Haberman to identify teachers most likely to succeed and stay in urban schools.

Haberman contends that it’s not teacher training that matters most, but an interview process that drills deep into whether teacher candidates believe that students can learn despite lives marred by poverty, violence, gangs, drugs or fractured families. Without a bedrock belief that poor children are not defined nor doomed by their life circumstances, teachers can’t succeed, he says.

When I sat down with him at a conference once, Haberman expressed skepticism toward the teacher recruitment efforts to lure promising young college scholars to struggling schools. Such teachers, he said, are only dabbling in most cases and will eventually capitulate to pressure from their families to get an MBA or go to law school.

“We should thank them for going to law school, ” he said. “We shouldn’t be luring people who don’t want to be there. There are plenty of people who want to be there.” Besides, it’s not enough, he said, that enthusiastic young teaching applicants profess a great love for children. As any veteran teacher will agree, students aren’t always lovable. That’s why it’s more important to hire teachers who believe that kids are still teachable even when they aren’t lovable, he said.

In Haberman’s research, the most effective teachers tend to be mature adults who come to the classroom later in life and who live or grew up in the local community. They are not shocked by the conditions of the school or the chaos of their students’ homes, so they carry neither pity nor fear with them into the classroom. What they do bring is a steely determination to reach their students and a refusal to blame their own lack of success on the kids, the parents or the neighborhoods.

Yes, these “star” teachers, as Haberman describes them, encounter all the same problems as their ineffective colleagues, a group that Haberman distinguishes as the quitters and failures. (Half of the teachers in urban schools quit within three years.) But they aren’t immobilized by the problems. “Star teachers believe that, regardless of the life conditions their students face, they as teachers bear a primary responsibility for sparking their students’ desire to learn,” Haberman said. “They do not wear down easily nor do they blame the students and their inadequacies,” he said. “Rather, they assume responsibility for doing more. They believe that success is a result of persistence and effort and that students have great potential if given ample motivation and opportunity.”

When teachers argue they can’t overcome a student’s background, they underestimate their power to change lives and they shortchange their profession. If childhood poverty were destiny, we’d have a lot fewer doctors, teachers and lawyers today. Children whose backgrounds would predict only failure achieve every day in Georgia because of smart, inventive and dedicated teachers.

Those achievements don’t come easily. And teachers, no matter how dedicated, can’t engage and reach every child. However, the teachers who change lives never stop trying.


Former British schools chief attacks Labour's 'focus on fairness'

The senior official who ran the country's schools until last year has condemned the comprehensive system, saying academic standards have suffered because of an obsession with fairness. In a startling indictment of Government policy, Ralph Tabberer, the former director-general of schools, said not enough emphasis had been put on "scholarship, genuinely high quality study and its importance". Even teaching children "character" and the difference between right and wrong had been neglected, he said.

He gave warning that the comprehensive system was "not working" and said Britain risked being overtaken by developing nations. Mr Tabberer, who now works for the world's biggest chain of fee-paying schools, said the future of education could only be assured by increased involvement of the private sector. But he said "inverted snobbery" in Britain had led to 30 years of near-apartheid between state and independent schools.

Mr Tabberer's comments, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, will come as a serious blow to Gordon Brown. He was director-general of schools at the Department for Children, Schools and Families until stepping down for family reasons last year. His warning will resonate with those who fear that the needs of the brightest schoolchildren have been marginalised in recent years, leading to a rise in applications for state grammar schools and private schools.

A recent Government-backed report suggested bright children in state schools were being failed by teachers who refused to give them extra help for fear of promoting "elitism". Fewer than half of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland left school with five good GCSEs last summer, including the key subjects of English and mathematics.

"We have tried a comprehensive system and that is not working," said Mr Tabberer. "The clock's ticking. Everybody else is catching up because they haven't got the same struggle to reconcile fairness and excellence." He added: "How do you make that the focus of education, and also the development of character, to turn out people who know the difference between right and wrong? "These are areas which are not getting enough attention in state policy and in the education debate."

Mr Tabberer led the Training and Development Agency for Schools, which trains teachers, before effectively becoming the second highest ranked civil servant at the DCSF. After stepping down he was appointed chief schools officer at Dubai-based GEMS Education, which manages almost 100 schools.

In his interview, he was careful not to levy personal or political blame, but he compared the current situation with the reforms of the Blair years. "We got a lot of things done, particularly between 1997 and 2004 or 2005 - the pace of change was fantastic," he said. "But the problem has got bigger and harder."

GEMS runs international schools in the Gulf, as well as a number in Britain. But it has made its name by providing low-cost education to the large south Asian communities of the Middle East.

Mr Tabberer said it was "humbling" to see Indian children at schools of 5,000 pupils, where costs per head were a sixth those in British state schools, achieve far superior GCSE results.

He criticised the failure of British parents to teach children to value education and to encourage competitiveness. But he said politicians needed to show more leadership.

Although he does not advocate a return to grammar schools, he said the emphasis on making sure the system was fair and equal had reduced the stress on teaching children to be competitive. "We don't spend enough time at the moment arguing about scholarship, genuinely high quality study and its importance."

He also called for closer ties between the state and private sector. "UK people are going to have to set aside a 30-year history of almost apartheid where inverted snobbery stands in the way," he said.

A spokesman for the DCSF said: "We make no apology for making closing the social gap an absolute priority. "It is about making sure that every child fulfils their potential."


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