Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gritty Teaching

Most of my regular readers (the two of you), know that I've become obsessed with following D.C. Public Schools. Their academic tribulations mirror on a grander scale the difficulties of the school I teach at.
Columnist Marc Fisher has another examination of one of D.C.'s schools. As with almost every article written about D.C. schools, the discussion centers on which reform method will work. Consequently, Chancellor Rhee's hard line tactics are called into question. Fisher's final statement, "At Truesdell, in part because of the chancellor's confrontational ways and in part in spite of them, it feels like a revolution is brewing," sums up the challenges with any reform model.
Acknowleding those challenges, I want to focus this morning on a two words from Fisher's title: Teacher's Grit. Of course grit brings to mind earthy features like sand and rock connoting determination and indefatigableness. It is a quality that often gets overlooked when evaluating a teacher's effectiveness. And this is where any conversation about teacher effectiveness must take into account the setting. We must be honest about the differences between a school with only 72 of 1438 students on free or reduced lunch and a school with 498 of 2153 students on free and reduced lunch. Two schools, separated by 6 miles, face different challenges and therefore should not be evaluated equally.
As a baseball fan, I recognize the importance of differentiating pure talent from pure grit. Some players make in the majors because they were gifted with extreme talent--they can hit a 95 mph fastball 465 feet; they can slap a 90 mph slider to the opposite field for a double; they can throw that 95 mph fastball and 90 mph slider 100 times a game with accuracy. Other players make it in baseball because they are gritty--determined to make up for their perceived lack of talent (comparatively speaking) by mastering the intangibles, the not-so-flashy aspect of the game. You won't see too many of those gritty players on the highest paid list, but you wouldn't want to try and win without them.
In some ways teaching success is like that. To succeed in a low SES school requires a certain amount of grit, pure determination to overcome the obstacles presented by situations out of your control. Success at these schools is difficult, but not impossible. This isn't to suggest that teaching at a high SES school is easy, though when you are handed talent, success should come easily to you--much like success came easy to Ken Griffey Jr. He still had to practice, work hard, and focus, but he had less distance to travel along the success continuum.
And the truth of the matter is that public education, in the all inclusive sense, needs both types of teachers. We need teachers who might not have a Master's in History, but can grit out the daily grind of a difficult school environment as much as we need the teacher with a Mater's in History to refine the skills of the already advantaged.


At 7:43 AM , Blogger The Science Goddess said...

For some reason, your post makes me think about those who insist that teaching is a "calling." I don't ascribe to that sort of theory, mainly because the implication is that we don't have free will or a say in our destiny. Baloney. We lie in the beds that we make for ourselves.

I would agree, however, that some teachers have more of a "talent" for the classroom while others love aspects of education but just have to grind it out. Perhaps it's the difference between internal and external factors. One's "grit" is more of a personal measure while talent may be valued by the system.

At 11:06 AM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

In my blog description I write "...sometimes I feel that I chose to teach as much as teaching chose me." That puts me somewhere in the middle, I guess; though I don't believe in teaching as a "calling" in the sense of ministry.
Do you think that the teacher "talents" can make it work when they end up in a school that requires "grit?" And do you think the "gritty" teachers can keep up with the high performing "talent" when their expertise is needed?


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