Teacher Excellence and the Reality of Teaching

Message from the Vice President, AERA
November 14, 2006
Christine Sleeter
California State University, Monterey Bay
Being a teacher educator these days can be a strange experience. Over the past several months, I have given numerous presentations depicting teaching as intellectually challenging, complex work. Using case studies of teachers in diverse classrooms, I have argued that learning to teach well is complicated, partly because excellent teachers know how to engage their students in thinking deeply about things that matter, while embedding the teaching of skills and basic content in broader ideas and problems that have relevance to their students. Ron Berger’s descriptions of teaching and learning in An Ethic of Excellence are not only brilliant and inspiring, but helpful illustrations of what classroom teaching and learning can be.
As teacher educators, this is the kind of teaching we try to promote. Linda Darling-Hammond’s most recent book Powerful Teacher Education develops excellent portraits of the best in preservice teacher education. [Highlights Alverno College in Milwaukee – LJW]. In New Zealand, the Ministry of Education has been sponsoring an Iterative Best Evidence Syntheses program, connecting research on teaching to diverse students’ learning, and to teacher professional development. For example, professional development linked to enhanced children’s learning incorporates teachers’ knowledge and skills, provides theoretical content knowledge related to practice, involves teachers in analyzing data from their own settings, and engages them in critical reflection that stretches their thinking and challenges their assumptions most recent issue of Harvard Educational Review, Betty Achinstein and Rod Ogawa examine two cases of beginning teachers whose students were out-scoring those of their peers on state tests, but who were pushed out of their teaching positions because of their refusal to follow the script.
What is going on here? It is true that teacher education as a whole has not done nearly as well as it could in preparing teachers to teach all students well. At the same time, reducing learning to teach to learning to follow a script greatly shortchanges what teaching and learning could be. It is ironic that teaching has become exceedingly prescribed and determined at a time when the U.S. is aggressively exporting its version of democracy and personal liberty. Not only is tolerance for diverse perspectives currently the lowest it has been in my lifetime, but support for intellectual inquiry and creativity in education seems to have disappeared.
To prompt consciousness-raising, curriculum theorist Thomas Poetter wrote a novel, The Education of Sam Sanders. Set in about 2030, it tells the story of a student who rebelled against rote learning and test preparation because he wanted to read whole books of his own choosing. His rebellion awakened some teachers’ memories of a time when teaching and learning involved harnessing reading, writing, and math skills to explore interdisciplinary themes of significance to the lives of students. Books that had been banned were brought out of a locked vault. Teachers began working collaboratively to design engaging curricula. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened.
I believe it is essential that we demand more for students. In part, this means demanding more from our own teacher education programs. Our work as teacher educators needs to be grounded in the realities of the diverse students who populate classrooms today. But rather than acquiescing to formulas and scripts, we must re-invigorate a vision of, in the words of Maria de la Luz Reyes and John Halcón, The Best for our Children.