You want to be a great teacher? Show some grit and persevere

by Mr. Sheehy

I hit the print icon at The Atlantic without much thought. The article, called “What Makes a Great Teacher?” sounded like something I should read, and anything in The Atlantic takes longer to read than I want to spend staring at the computer screen. As the toner molded with the page I realized how low my hopes for the article were and half regretted wasting the paper. Its publication in a magazine for general readership might be a rehash of things I had read before, perhaps even a condensed version of What Great Teachers Do Differently, a perfectly harmless book that disappeared from my consciousness within days of finishing it (twice). Ultimately, I’ve spent so much time reading professional development articles that say the same thing in a different way that there is no faster way to discourage me than reading it again.

Then I read the article and realized it contained something a little different. Not a lot different, and nothing I’d never considered before, but enough difference to be refreshing.

The article surveys data Teach for America has been using to track and study its participants over the last decade or so, data the program has not published before and data that throws an interesting punch to the assumptions we carry about great teachers.

For example, five not-surprising general findings of the study are that great teachers

  1. Constantly reevaluate what they’re doing
  2. Avidly recruit students and their families into the process
  3. Maintain focus, ensuring that everything they do contributes to students’ learning
  4. Plan exhaustively by working backwards from the desired goal
  5. Refuse to surrender to circumstances (which often include poverty, bureaucracy, and budget shortages)

I see “exhaustively” worked its way into the mix, and it appears from reading the article that such an adverb is more significant than one would hope. While none of the official findings declared that great teachers work really hard and lose sleep over it, you can see the relationship between the exhaustive aspect and the work not only in number four on the list, but in number five. In the words of Timothy Daly:

At the end of the day . . . it’s the mind-set that teachers need–a kind of relentless approach to the problem.

I am an old jock, meaning that once upon a time I played a lot of sports and competed athletically. I adored pushing myself physically, and one of the things that seemed to set me apart from those who were not as good as me, and that set those better than me apart from me, was relentlessness. Great athletes relentlessly worked at the sport, no matter how tiring it was. They pushed themselves until they were faster and stronger, until what made them tired today didn’t make them tired tomorrow. They pushed opponents until opponents gave up or made a mistake. They were relentless.

That makes sense to me, not only as an analogy, but as a definitive way to describe the work teachers do in the classroom. Teachers who push to improve despite work loads, despite difficult students, despite bureaucracy, despite technology, despite the exhaustive nature of the work–they’re relentless. Thus, Teach for America has found that the best predictor of success in candidates for teaching is their history of perseverance. Often, that can mean something as simple as GPA (especially trends, like a GPA that rises as college progresses rather than falls) or what they call leadership achievement, where a person runs something and shows tangible results.

The strange thing about teaching, though, is how much time we spend working in other directions. To improve, most districts push for teachers to take classes, to develop themselves professionally. To reward or bait teachers into improving, districts (along with the teachers’ unions) construct pay scales that increase teachers’ pay when more hours of graduate credit have been earned. You’re a teacher and you want a raise? Get a master’s degree. Yet Teach for America’s research shows that “a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.”

That qualifies as the least surprising new thing I have heard this month. My experience in the graduate world of education convinced me of one thing: where a large pool of potential customers exists, customer friendly products are bound to emerge. On the whole, graduate school for teachers is a consumer industry, a ticket one needs to have stamped to get paid a better wage. The instructors in such programs may have higher hopes, and the students might even have momentary visions of something different, but when it is all said and done, it’s about the paycheck, isn’t it? That seems to mean the main thrust of the professional development model is a bust. That is not a claim the article makes, however, so I’ll take the hit if that suggestion is overstated.

Regarding the relentlessness, this article described it as grit, and I like that term. It has given me a new way of viewing what I am doing here, a way that firmly affirms the reality of my situation even as it encourages me to endure.

Are there obstacles? Sure. Lots of them. From disengaged families to entitled students to budget cuts to bureaucratic hoopla, there are plenty of obstacles to go around. Yet when they pop up, what will my response be? According to this article, and according to my experience, that is where a great teacher earns the accolade. The great teacher shows some grit and perseveres.

I am not willing to call myself a great teacher–I have revealed enough on this blog over the years to build a case against myself if ever I am tempted to don such a title–but I am convinced I can do better, and that this is part of the formula.

It has to be, because without grit, I’ll never overcome the relentless pile of papers sitting to the left of my keyboard.

Thanks for reading.

Addendum: Sally Thomas has a few things to say about this article as well and her comments are worth perusing.