Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 28 2012

The Psychology and Unmeasured Effect of Teacher Alienation

I think one of the most difficult jobs of a teacher is taking responsibility for everything they do. Since this may sound condescending, I’ll speak in the first person. As a teacher, it can be hard in the moment for me to realize every time my class seems “bad”, it is more likely a reflection of my own mood, impatience, and pedagogical effectiveness, and look inward rather than on them for a solution. It can be hard to look at a poor exit ticket or a failing quiz/test and not make little excuses to myself (they were antsy after lunch, they don’t need to master this yet, they are not good at those kinds of questions, they didn’t do their homework).  While there are a million external factors that can and do affect student performance (families, school-wide policies, the weather, whether it’s a fool moon), the paradoxical nature of the teaching profession is we have to orient ourselves towards taking responsibility for their performance in the classroom, even as we simultaneously know we can and should never be held fully responsible. It is an epic battle, a ubiquitous tension that pervades every aspect of my life in and out of the classroom. If I took full responsibility for my student outcomes on every assessment, I would go crazy. If I blamed all my problems on external factors, I’d end up being a much, much worse teacher (which is saying quite a lot). I think this tension will ring true for many, but perhaps not all teachers. Some may be more effective and therefore able to take responsibility for every aspect of student performance while still sleeping well at night. Others may be less reflective, and more inclined to think that their case, their students, are different or exceptional. But I think these two groups are probably the minority.

I would posit that the degree to which a teacher takes responsibility  for the results in their classroom (academic, behavioral, social, and even future) has a non-negligible and potentially quite dramatic effect on student outcomes (academic, behavioral, social, and future), all things being equal. The one thing that unites the fantastic teachers I see around me is the understanding that it’s their job to take responsibility for everything in their classroom, and adapt accordingly. The opposite is true for those who I see struggling.

I believe this fact is very important because the way a school is organized can have a dramatic effect on the extent to which teachers take responsibility for their students’ outcomes. A teacher in a school that is more likely to give him/her autonomy, or at least convince them that its pedagogical approach is effective and worth buying into, is more likely to take responsibility for his/her classroom results. A teacher in a school that mandates they use scripted lesson plans, pre-made assessments, comprehensive behavioral policies, micro-managed schedules, test-prep materials, etc., is much more likely to feel (perhaps rightly so) that their student outcomes are in many instances out of their control. That unyielding drive forward in the midst of failure that unites incredible teachers will be diminished. Regardless of whether these stringent school-wide policies are well thought out or appropriate, I think they will often alienate teachers from their students’ performances, make them less ambitious, and ultimately, less successful than they could be if they felt like they had ownership over what they taught.

I believe there is a psychological–turned academic–cost policymakers, superintendents, and principals should think about before they impose a reading program or math curricula on their teachers after hearing about its past success. The conclusion I draw is that it should take a lot of overwhelming evidence to unilaterally overturn a teacher’s professional judgement about how to run his/her class, and much more thought and resources should go into convincing teachers your feedback/resources are worth using, rather than imposing it on them and regulating compliance.


One Response

  1. meghank

    I agree. I think you make this point very well.

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