First Person

Identifying talented teachers: what is talent?

If I were to ask what made your favorite teacher stand out what would you say? She was intellectually gifted? He could explain anything clearly? Able to reach every kid? Master of classroom management? Made you want to work? Brought every lesson to life? Don’t worry if you don’t see your teacher on that list. Experts differ on this question, too. Teaching talent is hard to pin down.

This lack of certainty is why I worry that some reforms proposed for teacher preparation may box us into tight requirements with unintended consequences. While research shows that teaching quality is a big factor in whether students succeed there is less clarity on which characteristics constitute “quality.” So how do we make sure only the most talented teachers wind up in classrooms? Even harder, how do we identify which students in teacher preparation programs will be effective in the classroom five or 10 years down the road — and which will never have what it takes?

There’s been a lot of push lately for educator prep programs to limit admission to applicants (usually 18-year-olds) with strong high school GPAs. This recommendation troubles me because while I want teachers to be smart, many important skills of great teachers are not captured in grades. It’s a solution that appeals to logic but, unfortunately, research hasn’t found that it reliably produces better teachers. As Tim Daly, head of TNTP, a nonprofit that includes an alternative teacher prep program, wrote in a blog post last fall:

“Every year, many teachers who come to the classroom from selective programs turn out to be great teachers, but many others turn out to be middling or ineffective. The same is true about less selective programs.  Moreover, there is little reason to believe that any instances of outperformance among selective programs are due to selectivity.  They could be attributable to better pre-service training or better on-the-job coaching models.”

If Daly’s observations hold true more generally, increasing the selectivity of teacher prep programs would not improve the quality of the teaching profession. Further, it could have the unintended consequence of reducing the diversity of the teaching force. This is critically important as Colorado and the nation continue to diversify ethnically and socioeconomically while our teaching force remains disproportionately white and middle-class.

Daly doesn’t dispute that teacher prep can be improved. However, based on his experience, he points to more complex predictors of strong teaching: success during a teacher’s early years and a novice teacher’s ability to produce focused lessons, apply feedback from mentors, and take responsibility for her own success and continuous improvement.

Daly’s emphasis on characteristics shown by novice teachers led me to make a kind of crazy connection between what it takes to succeed in teaching and recent research about traits of successful athletes. As described by David Epstein in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, an athlete’s capacity to improve with training is more important than traits we traditionally associate with athletic success, such as great strength and speed. Perhaps the same principle applies in teaching. Maybe how much a teacher—even before being placed in front of students— is willing and able to change in response to training and feedback is a good predictor of future success.

A few caveats: After railing about the lack of firm empirical evidence behind some reforms I realize the line of thought I’m proposing is not even on research agendas. I also realize we must be careful comparing physiological changes in athletics with the behaviors and dispositions important in teaching. But bear with me. I think the connection I’m drawing in this limited case merits discussion.

Let’s define “baseline” as someone’s performance level at the point they enter formal training – say, when an athlete joins a varsity team or a teacher candidate starts a preparation program. Obviously, athletes and future teachers have many skills and talents at that point; the trick is to identify which are most important for future success. Some advocates argue that one measure of a teacher candidate’s baseline skill level, high school GPA, should be the prime determinant entry to traditional teacher preparation programs.

However, a key theme of Epstein’s book is that the amount of effort and growth in response to training is as important for identifying talent as the skill level an athlete has before formal training, a point consistent with Daly’s blog post. Epstein talks about the hidden potential of people to grow at explosive rates when exposed to training as “an idea that muddles the notion of innate talent as something that appears strictly prior to training.”  Perhaps we should focus more attention on developing such “trainability” measures so that we can better identify talent, regardless of a teacher candidate’s age or stage in life.

It seems to me quite possible that there are such “trainability bombs”—people with tremendous potential for explosive growth once exposed to training—among entering college students with unimpressive high school GPAs who could become great teachers. And I’m sure there are also a lot of students with relatively high GPAs who, regardless of their training, will never become great teachers. The key is to figure out how to tell these two groups apart, which teacher trainability measures might provide. This is not an easy pursuit but one with potential value to the profession.

So how do we go about putting great teachers in every classroom without narrowing the criteria so tightly that they squeeze out those with untapped potential? I think we start by celebrating the complex interplay of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and practices that go into good teaching and accept that we need more nuanced measures of talent.

As Daly wrote:

“To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should forego selection entirely or write off the importance of teacher preparation. But I think we need to admit that the impact of teacher preparation is tempered by a simple truth: Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and not everyone can do it well. It is not a matter of having a certain set of qualifications or completing basic training. It is more like quarterbacking: a job that presents a dizzying array of challenges in quick succession, which only a subset of skilled practitioners can negotiate successfully. Performance varies widely.”

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.