PESPD'S Myth #5: The Key Factor in Any Classroom Is the Quality of the Teacher
First of all, let me make it perfectly clear that this is not a cop-out. I do think teachers are very important, and I also think we should be more accountable than we are. But I have had classes where good things consistently happened throughout the entire school year, and I've had other classes where I've felt like we've accomplished very little. Since I am the same teacher in these different classes, how can the results be so different?
My reason for writing this post is not to say that teachers don't matter, but to say that there is another factor that is also extremely important in determining the amount of learning in a classroom. At least at the high school level, I believe this factor is even more important than the teacher. This factor is consistently ignored by critics of public education, and worse yet, by those who make policy. In fact, I can't recall ever having heard this factor discussed in any articles or books I've read or TV programs I've watched on the subject of education. The factor I am talking about is the make up of the students in a classroom and the effect they have on each other.
A typical classroom would consist of some highly motivated students, some apathetic students and possibly a disruptive one or two, and a bunch of kids who are somewhere in between. Show me a classroom with a higher than average number of motivated students, and I will show you a classroom where a lot of learning is taking place. And I am not just talking about the learning by the motivated students; I'm also talking about the learning by the other kids who are fortunate enough to be in that particular classroom. On the other hand, show me a class with a higher than average number of apathetic students, or maybe just a couple of really disruptive ones, and I'll show you a classroom where we're lucky if any learning is taking place at all.
Earlier this year I had a conversation with a biology teacher from a neighboring school district, and he told me an interesting story. He had four biology classes, and at the beginning of the year. He told me his third hour class was his best, and his sixth hour class was unquestionably his worst. At the semester break, three kids from his sixth hour class transferred into his third hour, and the two classes completely reversed themselves. The third hour class became his worst, and his sixth hour class became his best. Here is a situation where we have the same teacher teaching the same content in the same school, but all it took was three kids out of one class an into another to completely change the dynamics of those two classes. And please don't assume that this happened because this guy was a poor teacher. He is excellent, and is one of the most charismatic teachers that I know.
This happens because most students are like I was--not overly motivated, but not really what you would call apathetic, either. They're somewhere in the middle, and they are willing to go along with the pack. Put that middle-of-the-roader into a good class, and that student will become a pretty good student, too. He wants to fit in and be like the rest of the kids, so he doesn't want to be the only one who hasn't done his homework, and he doesn't want to have the lowest score on a test. But put that student into a classroom where there are enough kids who simply want to screw around, and he can become a real pain in the class himself. And believe me, I am speaking from first hand experience!
Some would probably still argue that the quality of the teacher is the most important factor in a classroom, but I think anyone would agree that the make up of the students is very important. But look at what public policy has done and is doing regarding that. Through court decisions and legislation, we've made it nearly impossible for teachers to remove apathetic and disruptive students from their classrooms. Now, legislation is encouraging homeschooling and there are more and more public officials pushing for vouchers. In other words, now we are encouraging some of our most motivated students to leave. I can't imagine a better course if we want to destroy public education. And I'm afraid that's exactly what some people would like to do.