Is focus on the few poor teachers driving away even more of the good ones?

People see bad teaching and they become convinced that the real issue is planning. Eventually, they decide that it would work best to have all teachers on “the same page” (my God, what would life be like if we all approached reading that way — laboriously moving page by page in the same book as everyone else?) with a lesson plan format.


teachers are often asked to focus on  the minutia. They are judged on their compliance regarding the physical space of their classrooms, the rigid format of their lesson and their ability to follow clerical procedures. In the process, teachers, indeed entire schools, become focused with things that have little to do with what it means to teach and to learn.

Often the focus is on strategies that are really helpful to teachers who are struggling. However, standardizing prescriptive formulas can be a bad idea. Oxygen tanks are great when they save lives. However, if someone is breathing just fine on his or her own, it might not be necessary to force to use it in the name of being “on the same page.” Similarly, medicine can save a life. However, if it is given to someone who doesn’t need it, I would consider it malpractice.

… we are so obsessed with teacher “support” and so convinced that teachers need more training and more skills that we are missing some of the greatest areas of need among teachers who are not among the bottom ten percent: affirmation, time, autonomy and creative control.

The very rope tossed out to help some teachers has become a leash that is holding back those are already doing great things. So maybe the real solution to teacher quality isn’t additional ropes. Maybe the solution is to cut the rope and see what happens. Otherwise, it might just become the noose that strangles the best of teachers.

John Spencer via

3 Responses to “Is focus on the few poor teachers driving away even more of the good ones?”

  1. OK, I’m trying to be positive but honest here. There are 28 teachers at our rural Texas high school. Of those perhaps 6 are dedicated teachers who are willing to learn and grow in their profession. Another 8 or 9 are dedicated to the industrial model of teaching, and though hard-working, are unwilling to change for the sake of learning. The rest are pretty poor teachers, mostly coaches, who are there for the paycheck.
    I know those percentages show a major problem with administration. Certainly there is no attempt-ever-to generate enthusiasm, to really be instructional leader, to work directly with teachers who need improvement. In fact, there seems to be an acceptance of poor teachers as a necessary evil of the profession.
    While I believe teachers who aren’t making progress need help, I do see what you are talking about, a fear on the part of administration to single out those who need help, and instead to inundate even the best with PD that is really unhelpful to any of them.
    I love teachers who want to learn and grow and who are willing to understand the need for radical change in the way we facilitate learning. I’m pretty frustrated with what I’m seeing and with leaders who won’t step up and lead. Just my take.

  2. Actually, both you and the commenter, David make very good–and not mutually exclusive–points. Weaknesses in leadership and looking for quick fixes rather than developing truly effective teacher evaluation systems, contribute heavily to the situations you both describe. Good teachers get frustrated and leave; ironically, weaker teachers who simply follow the scripts are encouraged to stay, even rewarded.

    From my own experience, I’ve found the best way to help struggling teachers is to surround them with highly effective ones; encourage collaboration and connection, and make it easier for teachers to do so within the work week. Those who want to improve professionally will draw on those models and mentors. Those who don’t will be more likely to leave or easier to identify.
    But as Scott points out, the key to doing that is to stop making life miserable for those who are doing the best work.

  3. I’ve heard quite a bit about teachers’ need for collaboration since they’ve traditionally been isolated from each other, so I was struck by the inclusion of autonomy among the greatest areas of need among teachers not in the bottom 10 percent but it makes sense.

    On the other hand, collaboration and in the form of PLNs rather than instructions from on high might provide the balance needed (as well as more “differentiated” or individualized professional development).

    However, I’m guessing leaders have a hard time figuring how to show which s However, I’m guessing that it’s rather difficult to identify specific teachers as models for others without causing tension. Maybe school leaders should receive training on how to do that as a matter of course.

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