No Einsteins need apply?

I'm not sure about something I wrote yesterday — in the post Blessed are the sense makers. Specifically, I'm a little unnerved by this sentence:

Students should feel (dare I use the word?) entitled to full explanations — we owe it to them, because that's what we're there for.

Two aspects of that line worry me.

Kristin — who is slated to be our school's first teacher when we open up with a kindergarten through first grade in 2016 — pointed out the first. I read her the post, and the following conversation ensued:

Kristin: Goodness, that sounds scary!

Me: Really? Whyever so?

Kristin: Well, I certainly don't know everything there is to know about everything! I can't give a full explanation to every one of my students' questions.

She was worried that this idea that students are entitled to full explanations makes it sound as if, in order to teach at our school, one would have to be some sort of nuclear-enhanced super-genius. (Now, for the record, she is. She's the sort of person who graduated summa cum laude in English and tutors high-level math. And she's conversant in science and philosophy, and cooks and bakes, for heaven's sake.)

Second, I worry that the "we owe it to them" phrase makes it sound as if teachers should be 'data butlers' — sensible-shoe-wearing incarnations of who hectically buttle (a real word!) information to passive students.

Both of these are bad.

But there's a danger in going too far in this direction — toward emphasizing that teachers need not be Einsteins or data butlers. Because: maybe they do?

We do need our teachers to be smart — very smart.

This job will regularly require a lot of independent research — so much so, normal classes will take Fridays off, so teachers can study and prepare lessons. Teachers will become mini-experts on a whole range of topics; it's only by delving so deep that they'll be able to draw students into authentic love of the subject. (This, if you're wondering, stems from the Imaginative Education angle of our school. They've just revamped their website — check it out!)

And we do need our teachers to do a little data-buttling!

Some educational environments put the onus on students to discover their "passions" on their own: the teachers in these schools aren't leaders, but merely facilitators. We'll be going in a different direction. In our school, both teachers and students will be expected to do the puzzling out together: it takes a village to make sense of the world. So the students will be serving the students — doing some extra work to help answer questions. But the students will be serving the teachers, too. The relationship won't be obsequious.

So, in sum:

1. No Einsteins need apply. (Though I've no beef if they do! Particularly if they can pull off the "I look seemply amazeen und I haven't vashed my hair all veek!" aesthetic.)

By that, I mean prospective teachers don't need to fret that they don't already perfectly understand human history, the physical sciences, math, and literature (and are also able to write elegantly, draw beautifully, and cook deliciously). Because we'll help them move toward that.

2. Teachers aren't mere data-butlers — it's not their job to fill passive minds.

Rather, they're job is to engage in a back-and-forth relationship with students, bringing them into a similar love of the subject matter.

What matters, then,  is that prospective teachers be thrilled at the idea of constructing expertise, and thrilled at spreading that skill to others.

The $100,000 teacher?

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS! How can we attract, and retain, amazing teaching talent?

At the Corbett Charter School’s presentation at the IERG conference, their principal emphasized that what they do was not “scalable” or “replicable,” “unless you can replicate our teachers.”

That is, this method of schooling (Egan’s Imaginative Education, as interpreted through Corbett Charter School) relies on finding talented individuals to teach — people with drive, and wit, and zeal. Such individuals, famously, can often make much more in private business.

Is one hundred thousand dollars a year enough?

Controversial reformer Michelle Rhee, onetime chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public school system, offered even more (at least for some teachers whose students improved scores on standardized tests). Per Wikipedia —

In 2008, she also tried to renegotiate teacher compensation, offering teachers the choice of salaries of up to $140,000 based on what she termed "student achievement" with no tenure rights or earning much smaller pay raises with tenure rights retained.

Now, I doubt this proposal could have provided that much money to every teacher in the district — the average wage would be lower.

But could a school, if it wanted to, pay every teacher a hundred grand? (2013 dollars)

And should it? Would it be helpful to attract and retain great talent? Could there be some unintended consequences?

Three closing thoughts:

  1. If we’re able to pay teachers a lot, I’d love to see administrators paid slightly less. That would help instill a fantastic message in the community. Is this just romantic nonsense on my part? Am I ignoring something important?
  2. Eventually, I’d love to see us develop a model that didn’t lean so heavily on the hard work of finding such gifted teachers, if only because I do want to replicate this, and such people are hard to find. But since we’re essentially asking the first generations of teachers to invent this school system along with us, this problem looms large.
  3. I’ll be curious to talk about how we can keep other costs in the school down, to make things like this possible — having the community fulfill some of the roles of the janitor, for example.

There is power in a teaching team

Team One of the most compelling aspects of the Corbett Charter School, from what I gleaned at the IERG conference, is their method for planning lessons. They said that they don’t use any textbooks or outside curriculum — again, everything is “home-brewed.”

Four folks are on a team — that is, there are 2 teachers in the combined fourth-through-sixth classrooms (principal Bob Dunton called age grading “the original sin” of American education, and I’m prone to agree).

Let me lay out, so far as I understood it, the method the instructors at Corbett use:

  1. Members of the team research the topic their classes will learn about — say, Thomas Jefferson. They do this with all manner of books — kids and adults and whatnot — and, I presume, also with online materials.
  2. They meet together to talk about what they personally find engaging/absorbing/fulfilling about the topic, and which of Kieran Egan’s “cognitive tools” might best bring that aspect out. (For the fourth graders in the “Romantic” toolkit, that could be a sense of wonder, an identification with heroic qualities, the extremes of reality, and so on. Again, I’ve really got to post on Egan’s cognitive toolkits…)
  3. After they decide on their focus (and on which of Egan’s cognitive lenses they’ll employ), the members go back to their books, and swim more deeply in the content. It’s also only now that they talk about what they’ll do in class.

(Proviso: presumably I’m getting some of this wrong. I’m rehashing my memories of a short presentation that was itself a summary. Hopefully, though, what I’ve described above captures some of the rare beauty that is teaching at Corbett.)

One of the teachers said that they followed this method exactly, and every time.

One thing I love about this: they put the question of “what to do in class” after the question of “what is amazing about this content?” That is, they don’t explicitly talk about the form of instruction (game? debate? art project?) before nailing what the beating heart of the story is.

Precisely why I find this so spectacular I may sketch out in Friday’s post.

For me, this is a game-changer. In the past, when I’ve considered using Egan’s method, I’ve thought about doing it as an individual. And yet I’ve long known that my best thinking happens in intimate community.

This shared “geeking out” of what’s amazing about a topic — done for the purpose of inspiring students — is everything I love in teaching high schoolers. And in adult exchanges of philosophy. And in college Bible studies. And, and, and…

God, I could so imagine spending the rest of my life engaged in a team like this. Paradise.