Teachers can do harm

I spent time over the weekend with a recent graduate from an Ivy League university. He’s a brilliant, articulate, cosmopolitan guy who I am confident will rise to the top of his field (international relations). We started to talk about teaching— particularly Teach For America (TFA), which several of his peers were joining— and I started to get upset.

“Isn’t it a good idea to get the top people in there?” he asked, echoing a compelling talking point.

My condensed answer: TFA recruits aren’t the top people because they don’t have quality training. They could be the top people if they worked at becoming experts in the craft of teaching, which takes time, but since they haven’t done that at the beginning, they don’t yet qualify to be top people.

Success as a student and success as a teacher are extremely different things. As a student, you control almost all of your variables. As a new teacher, you need to get the most out of twenty-five or thirty other people, all of whom are unique individuals in a community that you don’t deeply understand since you haven’t been a part of it. You have to understand a range of pedagogical strategies, you have to be an expert on the curriculum, and you have to master the delicate balancing act of managing the classroom.

Teaching is a professional craft. Thinking that any high-scoring college student could come in and excel demeans it as a profession. No one would consider letting smart English majors perform surgery on low-income patients, or allowing cum laude math majors to do legal work for poor clients. Also, would you want to have been taught your whole career by rookies who didn’t study education and had no training? Would you consider them “top people” for the job?

I worried that I was starting to sound shrill and cut myself off. Indeed, TFA-ers are no one’s enemy. They are idealistic graduates who want to help for a few years. The market for them exists due to a shortage of highly qualified teachers.

The talk turned to other high-stress professions. Another member of the conversation mentioned oncology, a field with a built-in reservoir of disappointing outcomes.

He said, “I guess in that job you just need to tell yourself that you’ve done everything you can and you can’t take it too much to heart when someone dies.”

Again, I bristled at his well-meaning statement. (Jerome Groopman’s brilliant book How Doctors Think is still fresh in my mind.) No, I thought. Doctors can harm their patients.Indeed, they will make wrong calls on treatment and some of those decisions will have catastrophic consequences. Subscribing wholesale to the palliative there-was-nothing-I-could-do is a cop-out. Reflective doctors will realize those mistakes, learn from them, and become better.

There is a straight line here to teaching. Teachers, particularly inexperienced ones, can do harm. Like a doctor, a teacher does not provide either a positive or neutral experience his charges. Teachers can hold kids back in their development, whether by bad decisions, lack of craft knowledge, or inability to provide the attention a student needs. It doesn’t take malicious intent to hurt someone. The important thing is taking on the hard work to become better.

Efforts are being made to elevate teaching as a profession; the U.S. Department of Education’s RESPECT Project is one important example. My conversation with the Ivy League graduate clarified to me how far we need to go as a society in recognizing teaching as a true professional craft.

Stuffing under-prepared rookies’ ears with confidence and sending them into the fray doesn’t have a net neutral impact on our students or our national conversation on education.