The Influence of Teachers

Teachers can never declare "Missions Accomplished," because they are a bridge, not an endpoint, for all the boys and girls (and men and women) who come into their lives . . . . the teacher's job is to help students build a self, to create the entity that will be constant company for life. That's why the best teachers listen to students and draw out their thinking, but don't try to solve every problem. That's why the best teachers empathize and care deeply about students as individuals, but never lower standards or expectations.

The words above appear on p. 21 of a new book by John Merrow, who is probably best known as the correspondent on education for The PBS News Hour. The full title of the book is The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership. Merrow comes to this book with more than four decades of commitment to and interest in education: when he could not serve in the Peace Corp for physical reasons, he spent two years teaching high school, later taught at a traditional black college in Virginia while teaching evenings in the local penitentiary. Along the way he obtained a doctorate in education from Harvard and has served on the board of Teachers College Columbia, He has covered education for PBS and NPR since 1974.

As a teacher and as one involved in education I found the book well worth the time spent reading and pondering it. I invite you to explore it with me further.

Merrow, who is devoting all proceed of this book to Learning Matters, the production company he heads which actually published the book. Learning Matters was founded in 1995, and is an independent, non-profit, 501(c)(3) production company focused on education.

The book begins with a brief preface titled "Fighting the Last War," which is followed by the preface. The bulk of the book is in two main sections. The first, Follow the Teacher, has 8 chapters including such subjects as evaluation, pay, training, retention, recruitment, and tenure. The second, Follow the Leader, has six chapters focusing on issues beyond the scope of individual teachers, such as Charter Schools, school safety, the revolving door of school and system leadership, and turnaround specialists. This examination is important because how a teacher functions is often a product of forces beyond her control, such as the context in which she teaches.

Merrow ends with a brief conclusion, about which I will offer more later, but which I will note now was for me the heart of the book.

Teaching is, and should be, a reflective process. In that sense this book is the product of a teacher's mind, even if Merrow has not himself for many years been a classroom teacher. He, and the members of his production team, have spent countless hours in schools and in classrooms, observing, filming, talking with adults but also talking with children.

Much of the material in this book has appeared previously, and has been reworked to provide a more coherent overall approach. Teachers often recycle and rework material from one lesson into another: for one thing, we do not have enough time to create every lesson anew, for another, we are learning what works and what needs to be modified, and finally, what we should do should reflect our learning from our students. In that sense, what Merrow is doing in this book is functioning as a teacher, with his tv audience and his readers being the students in his classroom. Thus even though some of the material is not new, it is reexamined and represented in light of the overall goal of the slim but effective volume.

In the preface, Fighting the Last War, Merrow presents three historical purposes of school: providing access to knowledge, socialization, and custodial care. He argues that much of the first two now occurs outside of or independently of what goes on in schools, and if custodial care is all that remains - and if technology is not made available equitably to all, we will continue to see students walk away from schools, leading to an annual drop-out rate of more than a million. He argues that many of the battles on education policy is that adults are fighting old wars and ignoring the real needs of the young people in their care. The two paragraphs that end this preface are important, because they help the reader understand how Merrow has, over time, come to view his role as an education correspondent, so allow me to quote them completely from page 8:
Our young people should be learning how to deal with the flood of information that surrounds them. They need guidance separating wheat from chaff. They need help formulating questions, and they need to develop the habit of seeking answers, not regurgitating them. They should be going to schools where they are expected and encouraged to discover, build, and cooperate.
Instead, most of them endure what I call "regurgitation education" and are stuck in institutions that expect them to memorize the periodic table, the names of 50 state capitals and the major rivers of the United States.

There are two additional points I think are necessary to understanding Merrow. First, he tries to let people speak for themselves. Whether he agrees or disagrees, he offers extensive observations of and words from the people we encounter. Usually he will allow diverse points of view to dialog with one another. That does not mean he does not offer an opinion. He does, often forcefully. But he allows the reader to process the materially independently before offering his own thoughts. That strikes me as the approach of an effective and caring teacher who does not attempt to impose upon his students his own opinion, but also does not pretend to be without a point of view. That allows the freedom for continued conversation and disagreement.

The second is simply this, in words printed in bold on a page by themselves, before the book begins:

Dedicated to outstanding teachers everywhere

As Merrow notes at the end of the introduction, the material on "Follow the Teacher" is "generally optimistic in tone and content." That is because he wants to trust the dedication of those committed to the teaching profession. Thus one perhaps should view the book in that light - the reflection of someone who wants to help those dedicated to the learning of our young people, who offers the observations of a lifetime of covering education, of trying to help those outside of the school context understand the issues that confront those working to further the learning of our young people, be they teachers, administrators, or policy makers.

Merrow tries to be as sympathetic as possible to those about whom he writes, but is not afraid to criticize them when he thinks they are wrong. Thus even though he thinks highly of the commitment of someone like Paul Vallas, who has run school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, when that gentleman tries to justify why some of the charters in New Orleans are able to cherry pick students and avoid the harder to educate, Merrow writes bluntly, and includes the words of a parent advocate who is opposed to what Vallas is doing:
Vallas is splitting hairs here, because a parent is entitled by law to enroll a child at the school of his or her choice and the school is then obligated to provide the necessary services. Is that blatant discrimination? Parent advocate Karran Harper Royal doesn't mince words: "That's discrimination. You can dress it up however you'd like, but it's really discrimination." (p. 129)

Some who are in what they have claimed is the reform camp will be unhappy with criticisms like this. Similarly, those opposed to many of the reforms will find Merrow's positive words about people like Vallas - and Michelle Rhee, another person he extensively covered - more than irritating. Yet they should read more carefully than merely reacting to Rhee's name. Merrow offers the criticisms of others, such as the union president in DC, George Parker, who pointed out that if you find half your staff deficient perhaps you have a responsibility to offer assistance to overcome that deficiency. Merrow also notes that principals with ineffective teachers already had an effective procedure to remove them before Rhee took over the schools, had they only followed it.

I do not agree with all that Merrow writes. For example, he credits Rhee with changing the frame about how teachers are paid, writing on p. 132 "Largely because of her, it's no longer possible to argue convincingly that teachers, whether effective or not, should be paid based on their years on the job and graduate credits earned. Largely because of her, it's impossible not to recognize the absurdity of the current system." And yet, there were efforts well before Rhee's tenure in DC to reexamine the structure of teacher compensation, but that discussion is not yet fully defined. This is an ongoing discussion, one not yet fully defined. It might more accurate to say compensating teachers SOLELY on degrees and experience is no longer acceptable, both continuing education and experience may well be part of how teacher compensation is redefined. That is an ongoing discussion, one not as narrowly constricted as the words I just quoted might suggest.

As I look through my markings and marginal notes, I find places I agree and places I disagree. The book often made me stop and think, and I would suggest that is a major part of Merrow's intent. In the section on teaching I found far more that I agreed with. For example, Merrow is blunt that it is time to stop fighting the reading wars, that students do not need more drills in decoding. In an examination of the coverage he did of Teach for America teachers, he notes criticisms by others about the emphasis on control before noting simply (p. 34) "Control was not an issue, ever. It never is when kids are engaged." He admires the dedication and idealism of TFA teachers, but responds to his own question of what's not to like with these words:
Well, to be honest, sometimes their teaching is not to like. After all, they are first-year teachers who have had just five or six weeks of summer training and a short orientation in their assigned cities. They make all sorts of rookie mistakes. Occasionally I recognized in them that smug attitude I once exhibited towards veterans. (p. 34)

Regardless of how one reacts as one reads through the bulk of the book, I urge continuing to the end, to the conclusions. In four and half pages Merrow really brings it all together. This is the real reflection, and it is where he challenges much of our discussion about education. Since this is a book on teaching, one paragraph on the first page (177) of the Conclusion is worth noting, since it frames the rest of his discussion:
That's the dilemma, and the ongoing battle: Are mediocre teachers the heart of education's problems? Or is it the job itself, with its low pay and even lower prestige? Those two very different analyses of education's problems are competing for domination, and whoever gets to define the problem is likely to control education policy for many years.
So far, the so-called 'reformers" have dominated the discussion, because they have dominated the framing, and the media has largely gone along with them. As a teacher and a writer, I often find myself frustrated in attempting to get a differing point of view even considered.

Merrow examines many of the key points of the reform agenda in his conclusion and offers important cautions, such and the unlikelihood of Teach for America teachers to remain in the classroom after their minimum 2-year commitment. He recognizes that we need to redefine what a "better job" would like for teachers. That may include changing the current structure of union contracts. He wants to give principals more authority over their staff, but frames it differently than do many "reformers:"
Teaching will be a better job when principals have the authority over hiring their staff but are savvy about bringing trusted veteran teachers into the process
Similarly, he wants to recognize the importance of teachers in evaluating how students are doing:
It will be a better job when teacher evaluations of students count at least as much as the score on a one-time standardized test.

Both of the above are from the penultimate page of the Conclusion.

The final two paragraphs, from p. 181, make clear how much Merrow values teachers, and how his coverage of education has helped frame his analysis.

Let me take these paragraphs one at a time. The penultimate will sound familiar, since you will encounter words I have already quoted from earlier in the book:
Teaching will be a better job when we recognize that the world has changed, and the job of a teacher is to help young people learn to ask good questions, not regurgitate answers. With the flood of information around them, young people need help separating wheat from chaff. And it's no longer the teacher's job to tell them the difference, but to give them the skills to inquire, to dig deeper.
Here I have to note that if our primary way of assessing student learning is by multiple choice standardized tests often of dubious quality (which is why the Obama administration is putting $350 million into two consortia trying to create better tests) our instruction is going to be driven away from the kinds of inquiry about which Merrow writes, because it will not be valued by the tests used to measure "learning" and to evaluate teachers and schools. That is one reason why we cannot eliminate other forms of assessment, including teacher created tests and performance tasks.

In order to truly focus on students, we do need to focus on teachers. And here Merrow's final paragraph is quite apt:
When teaching becomes the better job. as described above, the brain drain will no longer be a problem - and we will likely discover that many teachers now in the classroom have been better people themselves all along.

Teachers operate within a context they do not control. Absent the appropriate context and support, we often do not truly know how good those teachers are, or can be.

We will not improve our schools and how we educate our students without an APPROPRIATE focus on the quality of our teachers. Note that bolded word.

This book helps provide that larger context. Remember the subtitle: "Reflections on Teaching and Leadership." The Leadership provided teachers can make a huge difference in how effective teachers are. Merrow recognizes that. He also recognizes that we cannot deal with what happens in the classroom in isolation from things like teacher turnover, the training and support given teachers, and many issues not within the control of teachers, individually or collectively. At least, largely not in the current climate.

I look forward to Merrow's continued coverage of education. I hope he will expand his coverage to include examples of teacher leadership, such as the increasing numbers of teacher led schools which address some of the issues he thinks necessary to make teaching a better job.

In the mean time, this book is useful, well worth the time to read. I think it lives up to those words at the very beginning, so let me remind you of them as I conclude. This book is Dedicated to outstanding teachers everywhere.


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