By Robert Bligh
I am intrigued by the comments of David McCullough about the training of K-12 teachers. I have several reactions:
(1) I suspect that a successful teacher training program produces good teacher candidates because of the personal characteristics of the prospective teachers it admits and graduates. Indeed, I have begun to suspect that most of what goes into making a successful K-12 teacher is in place before the teacher-to-be becomes a kindergarten student. I would say that a good teacher is born (with the right genes) and raised (in the right household), rather than “trained” or “educated.”
(2) Pure academic intelligence (whatever that might be) is probably the least important characteristic in an effective K-12 teacher. Certainly there are plenty of extremely bright teachers, but teacher contributions to K-12 students are not influenced much by pure teacher academic ability.
(3) Teacher personality traits (humane motivations, patience, sensitivity, tolerance for many circumstances that most people cannot tolerate) mean much more than mere academic ability. K-12 teaching is more of a nurturing role than an intellectual role. Teachers at every level who “fail” with bad students are the same teachers who “succeed” with good students.
(4) I wish that all teacher training programs would simply acknowledge that the most important thing they do to produce effective teachers is deciding (a) who they let into the program and (b) who they let graduate. If well-chosen teacher candidates are able to demonstrate that they are smart enough to graduate from college, their success in the K-12 classroom will be directly proportional to the quality of students they are given to teach.
(5) The common judgment of the impact of teachers is wrong. The idea that formal education – preschool or K-12 – can be an effective substitute for a healthy nurturing family is nonsense. Children spend less than 9 percent of childhood in school and more than 91 percent of childhood someplace else. Every child lives 50,000 hours between conception and the first day of kindergarten and spends less than 14,000 hours in a classroom between the start of kindergarten and the end of Grade 12.
(6) Students who are well-raised – especially during the prekindergarten period – tend strongly to succeed in school irrespective of the “quality” of their teachers. Students who are not well-raised — especially during the prekindergarten period — tend strongly to fail in school irrespective of the “quality” of their teachers. This outcome occurs in every state, in every school district and in every classroom.
(7) Expecting education to repair the developmental damage inflicted upon children by preschool life in inadequate household has been a uniform and universal foolish failure since it began to become politically popular in 1965. Children who fail academically do not need better teachers and better schools. They need better childhoods.