Students Like Nice Teachers: Who Knew?

By Jane Weinkrantz

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, The Tipping Point and most recently, Outliers, weighed in on educational reform last week with an article in The New Yorker entitled, “Most Likely to Succeed.” In this somewhat choppily written column, Gladwell establishes that there is little relationship between teacher certification standards and teacher effectiveness. According to Gladwell, “a group of researchers---Thomas Kane, an economist at Harvard’s School of Education ,  Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress---have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire. Neither makes a difference in the classroom.” While I would agree with Gladwell that certification programs are often onerous and irrelevant, the qualifications he sees as important really are things your mom should have taught you.

            What Gladwell embraces as predictors of classroom success are traits not linked to knowledge, but to social skills as observed by Bob Pianta, a dean at the University of Virginia ’s Curry School of Education. For example, teachers who have “regard for student perspective,” offer individualized feedback to learners,  demonstrate clear “desist” prompts to stop mischievous behavior and display “withitness”, a teacher’s ability to behave as though he or she knows what’s going on, are more likely to be effective teachers.

            Based on this research, Gladwell envisions a world where teachers need not be certified in order to be hired. Instead, he proposes that they be recruited in the same fashion as financial advisors. (Candidates are taught the profession and given time to develop and maintain client relationships. Those who can keep ten relationships make the cut. ) Gladwell suggests that schools would need to hire four teachers in order to find one “keeper.”  He imagines an apprenticeship camp with “rigorous” evaluations, an end to the “routine” granting of tenure and increases in wages for the lucky teachers who are retained.

            Frankly, I am amazed that heavy-hitting researchers from prestigious universities were called in to figure out what we have known forever---that people of all ages perform best when they are treated politely and respectfully by others who take an interest in their opinions.  It should come as no surprise that if a teacher has empathy--- which I suppose in Gladwell speak is “regard for student perspective” ---kids are more likely to respond positively to that teacher.

            Similarly, providing students with valuable feedback really just means paying attention to what they have to say and not ignoring them. Generally, if someone makes a comment, whether in a classroom or at a tea party, it is only polite to acknowledge it and respond. Is this a special quality in gifted teachers or is it just common courtesy?

While it is true that kids sometimes say the darndest things and sometimes it’s hard to keep a straight face, isn’t it a teacher’s job to praise insight, respond to questions with accurate information and correct misapprehensions gently and with dignity so that a student won’t be ashamed at having misunderstood? Is the notion that kids respond to good manners better than being ignored or reprimanded really breaking news worthy of restructuring the entire American teacher training system?

            Let’s talk about “withitness,” the quality educational researcher Jacob Kounin identifies as a teacher’s communicating to her charges via her own behavior that she knows what the children are doing or has “the proverbial eyes in the back of her head.” What is “withitness” but pride, pride in maintaining order in one’s classroom? A teacher needs a healthy ego to communicate to students that their work is too important to be interrupted by armpit gas, a handheld game or a text message. Without pride and self-confidence, there would be no “withitness.” However, these traits are immaterial unless you actually know something worth teaching.

            This brings me to the topic of knowledge. Gladwell dismisses teachers with advanced degrees, writing “After you’ve watched Pianta’s tapes and see how complex the elements of effective teaching are, the emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar.” Peculiar? How can book smarts seem beside the point in any discussion about education? You can have appreciation for another’s perspective, be very self-possessed or “with it,” offer kids feedback on their opinions and ask them to stop disruptive behavior, but without some sort of substance to communicate, it is only a question of time before students understand that you have nothing to say and behave accordingly.  Without teacher mastery of content, what Gladwell is describing isn’t instruction; it’s not even therapy. Whatever it is, it’s not enough to help a kid master a curriculum or pass a standardized test required for graduation.       

            Instead of those with “book smarts,” Gladwell would recruit anyone with “a pulse and a four year degree.” (Apparently, an undergraduate degree is no guarantee of academic accomplishment these days.)  Because teacher success can’t be determined until a teacher has contact with students, he would place candidates in paid apprenticeship programs, anticipating a 75% failure rate. Given the demand for qualified teachers today, using the “American Idol” model to determine who gets a teaching job and who doesn’t seems foolish and inefficient, though I suspect we could make the whole thing into a reality show, broadcast it during prime time and use the ad revenues to buy textbooks, desks and paper.

            Ultimately, the research Gladwell cites tells us what we already know: that students learn best when they are taught by someone who seems to be listening and paying attention to them. However, while good manners make for a pleasant classroom, the way to get students to pay attention is and will always be to know things that they don’t.

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