Clear the Way for More Good Teachers

January 03, 2016

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle
I attended a recent meeting at my university where we talked about ways to retain students. The usual suspects were offered as solutions — all of them already in use at colleges around the country and most of them only mildly successful, if at all. A few years ago we tried one of the new standards — a computer program students could log onto and answer questions concerning their time at school. The program would then send me a rating as to how likely my students were to leave the college. Of my introductory class, the program predicted three of my students were candidates for leaving. Meanwhile, I made each of my students come to my office hours for discussion of our class work and of life in general. I found that three other students — for very different reasons — were likely to leave at the end of the semester. These three in fact did leave. The three predicted by the program to leave finished their education with us.

I attended a second meeting aimed at recruiting full-time faculty members to develop online courses. The university would maintain copyright on the courses, but the money offered was substantial. I noted that the faculty members I knew who signed on for the courses were not our best teachers but those most interested in the cash.

I also went to a luncheon with our chancellor, who asked the guests what she could do to improve morale and keep younger faculty members from going elsewhere. The answers were almost all self-interested: fewer classes, more money, bring better culture to town, and so on. No one seemed much interested in improving learning.

Higher education has become an industry of meeting-holders whose task is to "solve" problems — real or imagined. And in my tenure as a teacher at three different colleges, the actual problems in educating our young people and older students have deepened, while the number of people hired — not to teach but to hold meetings to solve problems — has increased significantly. Every new problem creates a new job for an administrative fixer. Take our Center for Teaching Excellence: Contrary to its title, the center is a clearing house for using technology in classrooms and in online courses. It’s an administrative sham of the kind that has proliferated over the last 30 years.

I offer a simple hypothesis in response: Many of our problems — retention, class attendance, educational success, student happiness and well-being, faculty morale — might be ameliorated by ratcheting down the bureaucratic mechanisms and meetings and hiring an army of good teachers. If we replaced half of our administrative staff with classroom teachers, we might actually get a majority of our classes back to 20 or fewer students per teacher. This would be an environment in which teachers and students actually knew each other.

The teachers in this experiment must be free to teach in their own way — the curriculum should be generic enough so that they can use their individual talents to achieve the goals of the course. Additionally, they should be allowed to teach, and be rewarded for doing it well. Teachers are not people who are great at and consumed by research and happen to appear in a classroom. Good teaching and research are not exclusive, but they are also not automatic companions. Teaching is an art and a craft, talent and practice; it is not something that just anyone can be good at. It is utterly confounding to me that people do not recognize this, despite the fact that pretty much anyone who has been a student can tell the difference between their best and worst teachers.

By this time in my career, I am quite familiar with all the reasons why we are supposed to need more administrators and cannot afford more teachers. Primary among these is that legal issues require universities to hire lots of people to handle possible complaints from students and parents; witness the evolution of the syllabus from a teacher’s plan for a semester of learning into someone’s idea of a legal document and contract. We now have inspections of our syllabi. We also have to satisfy accrediting agencies and this, I’m told, requires elaborate staffing to compile all the numbers and figures for accreditation. All this despite the fact that accreditation is mostly a sham driven by constructed "assessments," not by an evaluation of what the students have learned.

Hypotheses, to be tested, require experimenters — and experimenters are hard to find in the bureaucratic crowd. They go to the same conferences and come back with the same set of solutions — the very worst sort of unreflective conformity. For my hypothesis, I need a college that will hire an army of teachers who will know their students both as classroom colleagues and as individuals. Teachers who will care enough to bring each student along in whatever ways work. Anyone who has taught successfully will know what I mean.

There is no magic or romance in this — teaching requires work, serious commitment to and caring for student learning. And for those worried about rigor and who fear progressive teaching, I agree that good teaching also requires knowledge, not just of one’s field but of how one’s field fits with the rest of a curriculum and with the culture within which one is teaching.

Administrators who have not been successful teachers may not understand what I mean, but if they are good administrators, they might see the sense in trying such an experiment the way a good coach can learn from the players on the field. After all, the committees, the specialists, and the endless meetings have put colleges in their present condition.

Just one college should cut its administrative staff in half and hire an army of good teachers and see what 10 years of such an experiment might yield. The teachers are available — the so-called business model of education has been a disaster and has left us with more qualified teachers than jobs. It is time to see what serious, hard-core teaching can do for a college — and its students.

Douglas Anderson is a professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University.

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