What makes a teacher great? (School reformers, take note.)

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

The YouTube video shows an anonymous first-grade teacher trying, and failing, to get her students to discuss a book. You see kids yammering away, wandering off, squabbling with each other. The teacher snaps her fingers at one child, sends another to the corner and tells a boy, "You're really bugging me."

My job was to study a roomful of would-be teachers as they watched -- and gauge their reactions to determine if these candidates for a fellowship had what it takes to be "inspired teachers." But what could I really tell about a person's aptitude for teaching from how they responded to a few minutes of video?

When one candidate praised that first-grade teacher for her classroom management -- and then recommended using candy to get the kids to quiet down (Starbursts would be particularly effective, she said) -- even I knew that was the wrong answer.

But that same aspiring teacher, a few hours later, was the only one in the room to challenge a competitor who suggested that the way to teach geography to D.C. schoolchildren was to ask parents to talk to their kids about where their families lived before they came to the District. "You can't assume they can help their kids," she said. "You have to focus not on giving the kids the facts, but on getting them to want to know the facts."

Now I was confused; her ideas about discipline were flawed, but couldn't she become a teacher who opens up a child's world?

The invitation assumed, as the lawyers say, facts not in evidence. It came from the Center for Inspired Teaching, a District-based nonprofit that trains people to become the kind of energetic, idealistic, effective teachers who might help turn around the D.C. school system. Would I serve on the selection panel choosing next year's Inspired Teaching fellows? The assumption was that, in a single day, I could offer some useful distinction between people who might make a difference in kids' lives and those who would leave the city's schools as sorry as they've been for way too many years.

I've written about education for much of my journalism career, but my teaching experience is limited to colleges -- hardly the kind of work that takes place in the D.C. schools. Here was my chance to peek inside that wing of the national school reform movement that maintains that after decades of futile tinkering with curriculum, classroom furniture, class size and a dozen other factors, the key to change is to focus on who is teaching. Get rid of bad teachers and bring in good ones, the reformers say. But how do you know who's good -- especially if they've never taught a kid in their lives?

On a rainy Saturday morning this month, I joined a few retired teachers, professors and reformers, as well as the center's staff, in a conference room on U Street NW. For six hours, we would observe and question 15 candidates from all walks -- college seniors looking for their first job, current teachers trying to improve their skills, older people in unrelated careers looking for a change. About half of the group would be chosen to take part in a 15-month program that starts with a summer-long boot camp and continues with a full year as a D.C. teacher, paired with an experienced mentor. (This was one of several such selection days; the program chooses about 25 winners from 180 applicants.)

The goal is nothing less than to radically change children's experience in the city's schools, sometimes in a direction quite different from that of Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's reform program. Ideally, the Inspired Teaching fellows will go into D.C. classrooms and treat children like the eager, curious and fascinating people they are, rather than like prisoners in an institution. Even if a school has policies that the center's leaders find abhorrent -- such as stoplights (yes, actual traffic lights) in classrooms to govern children's behavior or the deeply loathed "silent lunch" -- graduates of this program are expected to run their classrooms with high standards, respect for children and a zeal to get students excited about learning. If that means contravening school policy, well, the center's staff said, a really inspired teacher will find a way to insert a dose of "tempered radicalism" into a stultifying, authoritarian school.

This is the point where many skeptics will roll their eyes. What works in some idealist's manifesto about children's natural desire to learn won't fly in these classrooms, with those kids, they say.

And that, I quickly learned, is one surefire way not to get into the Inspired Teaching program: Call students "those kids."

The day starts with the candidates standing in a circle. Each person says his or her name and what it means, and then makes a sound and a physical gesture that expresses that meaning, a warble of joy with a big, sweeping wave, or a knowing chuckle accompanied by a cute pivot. If this seems like some mind-numbing human resources management tool, it sure felt that way to some participants, several of whom could barely mouth their names when it was their turn.

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