Friday, February 1, 2013

America's Got Talent

Exxon Knows Teachers
I’ll bet you’ve seen the Exxon Mobil commercials that are about teachers.  On standardized math and science tests, according to the commercials, students in the US are faring poorly against those from other countries.  In the New York television market, I saw the spot at least a dozen times in November and December.

Pretty amazing, really:  good advertising IS education. 

By almost any measure, American public schooling is in trouble.

We need better teachers—almost everyone agrees on this point.  How to get and keep great teachers, however, remains a sticky wicket.  And—it’s the single most important problem plaguing education.

Exxon’s point appears to be that we need better training for teachers.  Apparently, they've put some money into doing it, too, which is commendable, even if you're not crazy about that company.  Again, a lot of people seem to agree about that—I certainly do.  I have a lot of experience in teacher training:  I've been through graduate programs, seminars, professional development, staff meetings... I've seen what people in my profession are doing to train us.  It is not good.  I hate to say it but, if you're a teacher reading my blog, you know what I'm saying.  Every once in a while, you actually learn something in PD.  But most of the time, it is dismal parody of itself.  It's bad teaching about good teaching.  It'd be funny it weren't so bloody sad or frustrating.

The Billion Dollar Question
How do you train a teacher into being a great teacher?

My answer is simple:  you can’t, basically.  Or, at least, it takes a really motivated person to do it.  I talk about it in detail in an earlier article "The Great Ones" which you should read right now.  Go ahead, I'll wait here.

You can help a lousy teacher become less lousy. With a lot of work, you can take a decent teacher and make them better, certainly.  But you can’t-- without an incredible amount of work in a culture that is really hard to build-- make any old person a great teacher.   It’s like thinking you can take the bassist of any band and make him into Paul McCartney.  Or taking a decent pitcher from a team in the majors and make him into Babe Ruth.  It's incredibly difficult to make someone great at anything. 

So where are all of the great teachers?  Some of them are in the classrooms.  But I’m willing to bet there are many, many more who aren’t teachers by trade.  They’re making money doing something else.

The bottom line:  we don’t have a skill problem.  We have a talent problem.  Exxon Mobil, I'm glad you want to help out teachers.  You guys over at your company know how to attract talent, right?  I'm not trying to be cute or anything, but it's not complicated.  

Mostly, it's just expensive.  

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