A Philosopher's Blog

Why So Few Excellent Teachers?

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2010
University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...
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Since I have a fair amount of experience in higher education, I will venture to answer this question. One obvious reason is that teacher salaries at the K-12 level generally are not that great. However, even when the salary is good, the rewards for excellence tend to be disproportionate to the excellence. That is, teachers often get out far less than they put in.

Interestingly enough, one drain on the pool of excellent K-12 teachers is probably higher education. If someone loves to teach and has excellent abilities, they will quickly realize that the college/university level provides far more return for the effort. The pay, status, facilities, and benefits are generally much better. The problems are far less. In my own case, I did a stint as a high school teacher. While I love to teach, running study halls, dealing with discipline problems, and so on all made the job more of an ordeal than a pleasure. So, I did the obvious thing and became a professor, thus keeping the best aspects of being a teacher and ditching most of the bad ones.

Another obvious drain on the pool of excellent teachers is that someone who has the virtues needed to be an excellent teacher (intelligence, knowledge, leadership, creativity, charisma and so on) can excel in other fields that generally offer far more to a person. Such an amazing person could start her own company, have a high paying and rewarding career, or become a major force in politics. While some people do find the rewards of teaching to be sufficient, obviously enough most people with such excellence do not. They seek other careers and far greater rewards.

While it is tempting to say that such excellent people should be suitably rewarded (bribed) into going into K-12 teaching, there is the obvious question of whether the resources spent to get such stars would yield greater benefits than spending the same resources to get more average teachers. While sports teams can often afford to pay stars cosmic wages, there are actually very few professional sports teams while there are many,  many schools.

Of course, improving salaries and fixing the problems that make teaching K-12 unpleasant can go a long way in improving the quality of education. This might well be better than trying to take a star approach.

Another reason why there are so few excellent teachers is that there are relatively few truly excellent people. After all, think about your own general experiences at stores, work, and so on. How many truly excellent and amazing people do you know? Of course, I suspect that one reason why we have few excellent people is that our educational system has some serious problems. This creates a rather unfortunate problem: we need a better education system to get better people, but we need better people to have a  better educational system.

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12 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on September 30, 2010 at 7:35 am

    I think part of the problem is that teachers at the high school level and below have very little freedom to design their own curricula, and must focus on teaching to standardized tests. This is soul crushing.

    The root of nearly all of our problems is creeping nannyism.

  2. urbannight said, on September 30, 2010 at 8:07 am

    I suspect there are more excellent teachers out there but we view excellence by how good the students’ grades are.

    Parents and the general public, and even administrators at times, see the teacher’s job as motivating the student to do better if he or she does not do well. They view poor performance of students at a teacher’s failing rather than something the student is also responsible.

    But even my education instructors in college admitted that motivation is an internal factor and no matter how much you bribe, reward, or cajole your students, external motivation does not lead to lasting behavioral changes that will raise grades significantly enough to make the teachers look more successful.

    Until the parents, administrators, and general public start to realize that the most important factor in a student’s success is the student’s own willingness and participation on the learning process, there will be great teachers who do not look so great on paper.

    Instead of basing teacher success rates on the success of the students they should get all those students who don’t want to be there, whose parents have to pay them just to go to school, or who just don’t feel invested in their own education and ask them about their teachers.

    Even the students who do poorly because they don’t want to be there or drop out because they don’t see the point will have favorite teachers. Teachers who cared and tried to help in a way to which they could relate. Teachers who were there to listen to them and tried to help them with issues, unrelated to school, that impaired their school performance, or just made the classes more interesting and less objectionable to the.

    A teacher’s success rate isn’t the number of students he or she got through the school system with high enough grades. A teacher’s success is measured in the number of students who still think about the teacher years later, who remember things about the classes long afterward, who can say that a particular teacher really helped them out when they were in school.

    Stop looking at the number of students who pass or who get A’s and start watching the teachers’ doors. Which teachers have a steady stream of students coming to see them before classes, at lunch time, after school? Dollars to donuts, those are the teachers who are truly excellent despite the fact that it is not an excellence that can be charted on a graph.

  3. greatgallimaufry said, on September 30, 2010 at 8:30 am

    I agree with T.J. about forcing teachers to teach to standardized tests. For someone who truly desires to teach, this is intolerable.

    Second, I also think that the environment we’re asking teachers to teach in is not conducive to education: crowded classrooms, fewer cocurricular activities for the students, less support from parents (and sometimes school administration), less resources, etc.

  4. Erik said, on September 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

    “Better” people aren’t necessarily “excellent” people. If you expect “excellence” from all teachers, you’ll be waiting until “no child is left behind”. Good luck. Remember the general public has to fund whatever it takes to achieve school excellence. Good luck with that too.

  5. WTP said, on September 30, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    When student is ready, teacher will appear.

    • kernunos said, on September 30, 2010 at 4:11 pm

      Was that from the ‘Karate Kid’? It does sound rather profound.

      • WTP said, on September 30, 2010 at 4:45 pm

        No. I thought it was Con-Few-Shus but my googly research sayeth Boo-Duh.

        Since C precedes B, or so it is mostly thought, I’m inclined to go with Mr. C.

  6. kernunos said, on September 30, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    I think that students who understand effort and what they do in schools is paramount to their future they will do a bit better.

  7. kernunos said, on September 30, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I think that students understand effort and how much they accomplish through their own motivations in school is paramount to their future they will do a bit better. It isn’at always someone elses fault or a lack of others caring or giving money. – There edited. The last post sounded like I was drinking.

    • Erik said, on September 30, 2010 at 7:27 pm

      What were you on when you wrote this one? :)

      • kernunos said, on September 30, 2010 at 7:35 pm

        Nothing but lack of sleep at the time. lol Don’t blog when drinking though. Not a good idea.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 1, 2010 at 10:04 am

        Lack of sleep and some Gatorade.


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