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

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; B01

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.

But this and other such exercises turned out to be every bit as revealing as traditional interview and essay questions, which are also part of the selection process. As the day progressed, I was surprised by how easy it was to slot most candidates into lists of winners and losers; the great majority were clearly either the kind of person I could easily see kids remembering for the rest of their lives, or the kind who makes kids loathe going to school.

You're either "curious," "contemplative," "flexible" and "adaptive" -- some of the characteristics our scoring guide told us to watch for -- or you're not. The guy who scoffed, frowned and repeatedly exhaled in frustration when asked to use a pile of art supplies to construct a nonverbal definition of intelligence was not going to inspire a roomful of kids to think creatively about fractions, poetry or how we know the Earth isn't flat.

The woman who made it through a 35-minute interview without once mentioning children and who could not summon a single story about having been inspired by a teacher was not going to score well in "empathy for children" or "values imagination." When she was asked what qualities are important in a good relationship with children, her first words were "healthy boundaries." Well, thanks for coming in.

At the other end of the spectrum, a woman who offered a slew of reasons why it might be perfectly okay -- indeed, even a welcome sign of creativity -- for a child to color his fingertips with markers won praise from the judges. "I'm usually not so excited by the fresh-outs," one staffer said, using the organization's slang for applicants who are finishing up college. "But she's terrific."

At the lunch break, I was a bit worried that we were being swayed by subjective impressions -- the candidates' energy, confidence, improvisational talent. But as we turned to the scoring rubric that would be the basis of our selections, those impressions turned into reasoned judgments about characteristics that Inspired Teaching believes lead to success in the classroom. Do candidates believe that all children can think and learn, or do they see kids as problems? Who has the personal strength and skills to persevere and connect with students? And who feels called to teach? (Probably not the guy who said teaching was a good way to learn about his community before running for a seat in Congress.)

"We try to be as objective as possible, but there is a magic factor," said Julie Sweetland, Inspired Teaching's research director.

In the end, the selection process demonstrates that the potential to connect with kids permeates a personality; or, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart would have put it: "I know it when I see it."

The candidate who had me confused ended up being rejected; I'd been wowed by her energy, but the other judges turned her down because of her bossy manner and her view that children are problems to be managed, not creative beings ready to blossom.

In most cases, though, the judges all developed similar impressions of the candidates. Maybe, then, there is such a thing as an "inspired teacher" -- someone who listens well and takes students at face value, someone with high standards and perseverance who is also warm, vulnerable and loving. Sounds like a character who exists only in fiction -- and that's part of the problem with the school reform movement.

The idea that great teachers are born, not made, is a mainstay of novels and movies in which heroic teachers are forces of nature, charismatic connectors who instinctively know children and find a way in. Some of that romantic concept of the educator born whole is evident in the rhetoric of school reform. It's the idealism behind the image of Rhee wielding a broom to sweep out the bad teachers and make room for the good.

Aleta Margolis, the founder and director of Inspired Teaching, doesn't buy the broom metaphor. Yes, some people are more likely to become great teachers than others, but after 14 years of figuring out the ingredients of an inspired teacher, Margolis has concluded that many, if not most, educators can be taught to turn away from an authoritarian approach and adopt values and methods that help children become active, involved learners.

That means that a wholesale cast change is not the only way to improve schools. Margolis believes that people who are in teaching for the right reasons can be molded into "instigators of thought" rather than providers of information, teachers who present questions such as: "This is the formula for multiplying fractions -- why?"

Maybe great teachers are both born and made.

I started the day hesitant about picking great teachers out of a crowd, but as the candidates spoke and role-played, I saw in some of them meaningful flashes of the extraordinary people I've seen change lives in my years of covering schools, in my children's classes and in my own education. The raw material really does stand out; whether it develops into inspired teaching depends on the training and time that follow.

But even the most promising teachers won't face their greatest challenge until after their training, when they go to work in schools where senior colleagues advise them not to smile until after Christmas, to show the kids who's boss.

That's when the real test happens: In schools as suspicious of kids as too many in D.C. are, change takes place only when individual teachers take on the system. Now that's when you really need to be inspired.

Marc Fisher, The Washington Post's enterprise editor for local news, has covered education as a reporter and columnist for three decades.

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