Posted in Learning, Schools, Teaching

On success pt. 2

Earlier this month (October) World Teachers’ Day was celebrated around … well … around the world. Did you hear about any celebrations? Did you take part in any? If you have school age children did you do something nice for their teacher/s? If you’re a teacher, did you celebrate in some way, or were you celebrated/acknowledged by others?

When thinking about success yesterday, I began to think about what it meant to be successful as a teacher. How is success measured? What does a successful teacher look like? What do they know, what skills and understandings have they developed, in what ways can they communicate their ideas, knowledge, understandings, thoughts, feelings, views? What are their values and what do they value?  Can you ‘see’ teacher success by looking at their students? Is there a link between a successful teacher and successful students? Is teacher success a sum of individual students’ successes? Is it simply a matter of addition … successful student A + successful student B (and so on)  = successful teacher?

We sometimes talk about students as if they are pieces of machinery that can be weighed and tested to see if they fit a certain list of pre-ordained specifications. Even if they are, would the teacher be the only one responsible for ensuring they meet those specifications, or are others involved too?

The structure of the school, for instance, has a part to play in student success – the kinds of programs the school offers, the number of lessons scheduled each day (and therefore the amount of time students have to work on things that matter), the relative worth of particular subjects (what’s more important and therefore how much time is spent learning Physics, English, Drama,  Maths, the capital cities of the countries of the world, the canon of English literature, History, driver ed, pet care, sustainability …?). And when there is only so much time in the day, what’s given priority? What’s missed out? And ability to ‘do’ which of those subjects would constitute success? If you can do quadratic equations but not name the poet who wrote The rime of the Ancient Mariner and discuss what it’s about in a coherent way, should you be considered successful?  If you cannot name the rivers down the eastern seaboard of Australia, but be able to parse a sentence correctly, are you a success? And for how long do you need to know this information? If you could parse a sentence when you were at school, but couldn’t now to save your life … were you really successful/was the teacher?

Different people will have different views on these questions and I doubt there will ever be any agreement. You might think that there is no question, that surely everyone would agree with your perspective, but ask around. What do others think?  Do they agree with you? On what points do your views diverge?

So the ways schools work has some impact on student success and our understanding of success has some influence on whether we deem students successful or not. The culture of the school – which is often established by the principal and leadership team  – also has an impact. If the principal says, at the end of lunch, ‘Okay troops, back to the trenches’ then she is putting a particular way of being into place. The teachers are soldiers and the students are … the enemy? Language is important, and it is to our detriment that we ignore the power of the metaphors we use and the influence they have on our own and others’ actions.

Of course, parents also have an influence on how successful their children are at school. Parents’ attitude to education and to teachers will be communicated to their children even if they don’t say anything to them directly.  Some parents will be in a position to take their children overseas and provide cultural experiences that other parents will not have an opportunity to provide; some parents will nag their children to do their homework, while other parents will have the view that schoolwork should happen between 9 and 3 and there should be no requirement for children to do school work out of school hours. Some parents will hold that view and still nag their children to do it! Some parents will talk to their children and in that way support the child’s capacity to communicate with adults; some parents will buy books for their children and establish a routine of reading to them at bedtime each night; some parents will limit time on the Nintendo DS and the iPod and how many hours of cartoons/video games/internet porn their children watch and will encourage them to become involved in sporting, cultural, community, and/or social activities. Some parents will speak to their child’s teacher and show an interest in the child’s education and progress.

But not all parents will do those things. Does that mean that some students get a head start? Or are better placed to be successful in schools?

We can’t discount the influence of teachers, of course, but we should remember that not all teachers are the same. They will have different motivations, different ideas about their role in the classroom, different ideas about the purpose of education, different ideas about how best to manage the classroom and its resources, how best to motivate and engage students, how to interact with children to allow them to flourish. Some teachers won’t even think about student flourishing. Some teachers claim that they teach subjects (disciplines) while other teachers claim they teach children. Some teachers are critically reflexive and question everything they do and question why they do it in the way they do it; some teachers don’t. Some teachers go to PD on a regular basis and continually learn; some teachers don’t. Some teachers leave as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day; others stay at school for hours, planning and marking and finding resources. Some teachers take their students on camps or walk the Kokoda Track with them, spending hours preparing themselves and their students for the trek.

Education is not a level playing field – not in terms of the children, their families, the schools they attend, or the teachers who teach them. But neither is it a factory, where a raw product is off-loaded in the loading bay, put on an assembly line, moved through a series of processes that are done to it over a number of years, evaluated at the end of the process to see if it measures up, and sent on its way – that ‘way’ being determined by how it measures up.

I have a hard time thinking of children as products, as things that need to have processes “done to them”.

And so I have a hard time determining what constitutes success when it comes to teaching. What does a successful teacher look like? What is the outcome of their success? Is it a group of children who all know the same things because they’ve been through a standardised/standardising ‘process’? Or is it more than that – how much more? What does that ‘more’ include?

And how do we know when a teacher has been successful? A teacher’s success may take years to be realised – there are countless instances of students who get in touch with their teachers many years after leaving school and recount a story of the impact the teacher had on that child as an adult. Success may not be immediate. Does that mean the teacher is any less successful?

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this. What does it mean for a teacher to be successful? Can success be measured and if so how? Against which criteria and whose judgements? Do we all have the same understanding of success and are we confident that we’re measuring apples against apples – if we agree that there is some way to measure teacher success?

Let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s a body of literature out there – people who have conducted studies on this very issue, but I’m interested in what you think.

And if you do think, then perhaps you should thank your teachers!


I like to travel and take photographs. I like to blog about both.

4 thoughts on “On success pt. 2

  1. (note written after bulk of post: this might not be on topic but you got me thinking so it’s rambly but hopefully in the same vein as what you’re talking about).

    The fact that I’ve sat, as an adult, in the lounge room of my grade 3 teacher and my 10/11 French teacher (and in your lounge room too) speaks to some kind of success but it might be the more mushy kind of impression made by the teacher (or perhaps both ways but I wouldn’t be so presumptuous). I’ve said before that I always did the most/best work for the teachers who I liked and who I sensed liked me. Maybe that was driven entirely by the need to impress, or more the need to not let down, but I suppose I’m led to believe that the emotional connection (not “let’s stand around and hug and cry” connection, but more an “I care about your learning and your future, regardless of how much it has to do with your pen licence/the First Fleet/conjugating “être”/your immediate understandings of Vygotsky”. Or maybe I’m just the dag who hangs out with her teachers.

    My parents went away for a week from the US to Australia when I was in grade 11 (in the US) and I stayed with my French teacher. We left school together in her car. It was the most innocent thing in the world. I went home (that is, to her house) and chased her 3 year old around the yard and then we ate dinner and I did my homework and went to sleep listening to The Shins because that’s what I did when I was 16. I stayed with her for weeks at a time when I returned to the US as an adult. We email sporadically now, but whenever I see her, it’s immediately the same and hilarious and I’m still a kid but I drink wine and she is still the same person who stabbed me with a mechanical pencil because I was asleep in her class. I’d love to be that person to someone(s) but at the same time, I think about how litigious society has become in the ten years since I was at high school and how people would have a field day at the thought of a student going home with a teacher, no matter how untoward it was in reality. I’m off topic (so unlike me, eh?)

    My point is… I remember the teachers who made the biggest impression on me on a personal level, and I remember a lot of the content they imparted. Not all of it. Don’t make me conjugate fifty French verbs into 5 different tenses. I might get maaaaybe 40% of it correct. Maybe. But I remember who I called when I failed my chemistry exam and I remember whose house I was in when my first boyfriend dumped me during a hurricane (the hurricane is mostly an unnecessary detail but it makes for a great story and metaphor).

    I’m kind of thinking that there’s a spot in between the mushy and the pragmatic realities of content knowledge that contains the realm of success. I don’t think I would impart much (content nor emotion) without making a connection beyond “Hello. I’m your teacher. Open your books to page 50.” Obviously we can’t sit around and talk about our feelings all day, but I don’t know how successful the teaching is, and student attainment of content (and teacher attainment of How My Students Learn) is readily achieved without an exploration of the more human side of being IN the content, using it, knowing it, wanting it. And if you don’t want it… why? Are you scared of being wrong? Do you lack the foresight to see its relevance in your life (now or next year or in ten years)? (Will it ever be relevant?). Are you just indignant because your hormones say so? Are you worried that being successful in class will make you unsuccessful with your peers? (Nerd alert).

    On relevance: I had a group of very very grumpy grade 8s with a Really Very Bad worksheet booklet on Polynesian history. No interest in it whatsoever (I wasn’t particularly thrilled either). And this is only very marginally a trumpet blowing session because it was more enlightening for me than it was for them, how in my first few days of high school relief I was able to quieten a group of angry 14 year olds… After a few questions, I gauged very clearly that they didn’t give a shit about Polynesia. I don’t care much for carbon copies of fill-in-the-blanks and bad sketches and word searches either. I said “okay, okay. tell me something that has happened. Anything. Locally. Globally.” And a boy shouted out “I lost my first tooth”. I said “cool! yes. Tommy lost his first tooth. That’s a life event and it’s in your history.” The class had sniggered at his comment and I don’t think he intended to be serious or to be taken seriously, but I wrote it on the board. Another response: “…um.. that.. Hitler thing.” I said “….World War Two?…”, “yeah, um… the Jewish…” “Auschwitz”, someone interjected, and I wrote that on the board too. I said “something biiiiig happened in 2001 when I was your age. Any ideas?”, and they came up with 9/11 but I was very surprised (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to see that they didn’t know a great deal about it. They were only babies, but I was still surprised. So I rabbited on (and they were listening to me! ahhh!) about how they’re doing things every day that mean something to them or make someone else angry or deliriously happy or they graffiti “Mickey woz ere” on the toilet wall or their granddad dies or their mum has another baby or the cat gets run over or they get their Ls or they have a girlfriend or a boyfriend or they study really hard, or they don’t, or they move into a brand new house that wasn’t there three months ago. Ramble ramble. And how crappy we’d be as friends or teachers or just people in general if people shared their news with us and we said ‘I don’t care.’ I said “the Polynesians did stuff. They built things and walked really far and they hunted and built more and had babies and fought for land and…” (this was admittedly going off my very very limited knowledge of Polynesian history, which I blame on leaving high school in Tasmania to go and learn about The Civil War and The Founding Fathers in North Carolina when I probably should have been learning about Polynesia in terms of How This Will Affect My Career Long Term). But basically, it ended up as a “in a hundred years, Tommy’s great grandson is going to lose his first tooth, and if you want anyone in his generation to give a crap about the things you’re doing and accomplishing today, then you might extend the same respect to ze Polynesians.” (I’m finding that occasionally speaking in a funny/unrelated accent breaks the monotony of BORING TEACHER. My grade 9/10 drama class was a big fan of Lebanese Alison).

    WHOA ramble. I’m going to stop writing now. That, I suppose, was an anecdote for how I feel about imparting potentially-boring content with a human connection. I also know nearly nothing about Polynesia. I can say that all of my experiences with Air New Zealand have been entirely positive, however. Kia Ora! (it must be bedtime). (I also know all about Samuel Taylor Coleridge because when Grade 10s in Tassie were reading (okay, watching) Looking For Alibrandi, I was up to my ears in English poetry).

    Thanks for the Sunday night Wheel Turnin’, Sharon.


  2. Measuring a teacher’s success is a very difficult thing to quantify because success is different for each child; as different as the children themselves are. I can recount one of my students’ successes which has nothing to do with any specific measurable academic outcome. This little boy registers on the autistic spectrum and his parents have been very concerned about how he would fare at school. He spent a few mornings last year in my classroom getting a feel for school. He never left his mother’s side and would not speak to me. A year on, and he still has difficulties with change and loud noises, but he works independently, tries his best and is always happy to be at school. I am so proud of his progress and I am glad that I have been a part of his journey. This success will not register on any standardised testing or data collection, but it is nonetheless one of the biggest successes our grade has had this year.


  3. I will tell you what I think but not now. I believe this question deserves some thought -and yes I shall thank my teachers for that, in particular a couple of Uni lecturers who showed me how to think deeply into a topic.


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