There’s a nasty narrative creeping into the national conversation New Zealand is having about education these days, that of the superhero teacher.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot line, it goes a little something like this. There is a massive achievement gap in academic achievement and this gap is because of bad schools. Since teachers are the most important things in schools, if the schools suck then it must be because teachers must suck.
Enter the superhero teacher.
Superhero teachers have the capacity to take any group of low-performing students and raise their academic achievement to heights on par with any student in the country, or at least reach them in a way no mere mortal teacher could. But this special ability comes at a cost, the superhero teacher must devote every waking hour (and some when they should be sleeping) to their students. The natural corollary of this statement to some is that we need to staff every classroom with superhero teachers and then hey presto our problems as a country will be solved.
This narrative doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s been played out in many a Hollywood offering most notably Dangerous Minds where Michelle Pffifer was able to turn around a group of delinquent students into learners with the help of Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and some chocolate bars as bribes. Of course anyone who has spent longer than 90 minutes in an actual classroom knows that the business of teaching and learning something new knows that resolving problems doesn’t happen in nice neat portions of time. It’s more like a slow accumulation of sabbaths than a sudden epiphany. Even LouAnne Johnson, the real teacher behind the movie, openly admits that the movie is only partially based on real life events.
Unfortunately the New Zealand Treasury is drinking some of that educational koolaid in this respect by advocating that things like class size don’t matter to the neediest students only teacher quality. Now I’m not saying that kids don’t deserve great teachers however the assumptions underpin the superhero teacher meme need some debunking so here goes.
The first is using research from a series of studies back in the mid 1990s that state that the effective teachers can lift student achievement rates. I don’t doubt that having an effective teacher improves student learning. However it is a huge leap of logic to state that the effect that three great teachers have on students’ lives is so miraclous that it justifies having a few extra kids in each class to free up resources (read hire less qualified and/or experienced teachers) and indeed the bold claim that three accurate teachers in a row is life-changing doesn’t seem to pan out much in theory or in fact.
Of course anyone who spends time in a classroom knows those extra few kids make a difference. That’s a few extra pieces of assessment to analyize, more families to work with and then there’s that small matter of classroom management. Most teachers, especially at primary level, don’t spend much time with chalk and talk ie. lecturing entire classes of students about what to do and what to think yet larger classes will move us back towards that model if for no other reason than crowd control. Education needs to become far more personalized yet the more kids there are in a class means the less time teachers get to spend interacting with kids one on one and bigger class sizes won’t help us achieve this goal.
More importantly underpinning the superhero teacher meme that is gaining traction in New Zealand is the idea that teaching is some kind of innate talent. Indeed the conversation that is emerging in New Zealand particularly around performance based pay and the emergence of Teach First New Zealand is that education policy is now becoming narrowly focused on the qualities of people who become teachers and on the process of educating, hiring and firing them while missing the boat almost entirely on the practices of these teachers and on the conditions that support those practices.
This mindset makes it easy to view initial and ongoing development of teachers as an inessential expenditure which what is already starting to creep into New Zealand teacher education with the government looking at disestablishing the 3 year undergraduate courses in favour of 1 year post-graduate courses or no initial teacher education in the case of Teach First New Zealand. Indeed we are now based around the idea that attracting talent, if only for a few years, is far more preferable to a long-term vision of how to develop our average (ie. most of) our teachers over the long-term.
More importantly it allows the government to wash its hands of any the factors outside of school that effect students performance.
Your students are coming to school hungry and aren’t able to learn effectively? That doesn’t matter to a superhero teacher who will find ways to feed the children’s minds even when if their stomach’s are empty. You obviously aren’t trying hard enough.
Your students don’t have families that read to them or value and encourage school? That doesn’t matter to the superhero teacher who will provide that sense of belonging and purpose. You obviously aren’t working hard enough.
Your students are absent from school because they are catching preventable diseases due to poor housing. That doesn’t matter to the superhero teacher who will shall make up for those lost days. You obviously don’t care about your students enough.
We are being led to believe that great teachers alone have the capacity to overcome these barriers and we need to hold teachers accountable to a set of standards which ignore the deeper causes of educational inequality. Clearly those causes are policy kryptonite to our economists.
Brilliant summary, wait till you see some of the courageous (read ill considered, arrogant….) targets being set for some student populations. But hey, if you can get 0% unemployment and 0 people die p.a. on the road then 100% student achievement must be possible… even if they don’t come to school.
Yes it’s all just high expectations and qualities. None of the small decisions that actually make up a teacher’s day. Body placement, eye contact, moving students, pre-planning strategies for dealing with problem students.
I love how it’s so often us teachers who are at fault for not being superhuman. ‘Education specialists’ who have never been in a classroom love to put the burdens on us, but are strangely reluctant to put an equivalent pressure on the students themselves.
Most of my NCEA kids don’t want to be in my room. They don’t want to go to university. What they do want is rugby (or dance events, Kapa Haka, etc… you get the idea) and they’ll do a trade certificate or work for their uncle after they leave.
Even the ones who don’t know what they want to do know they don’t want to go to uni. But by the nature of the national conversation, I can only assume that not only is it my fault that they do not like my subject, but that I had a hand in their brain wiring!
The kids are all right. Really, they’re tough and they pull through pretty well. NCEA isn’t the gatekeeper for a successful life. Let’s not dumb down the curriculum any further and let uni be for those who do want academic extension. Please?
I think there’s always going to be a disjoint in education between what kids want to do at school and what adults know they should do. However I worry that the focus on the superhero teacher clouds greater issues around developing all teachers and the root causes of educational underachievement.
An outstanding, thoughtful and insightful blog! Bravo bravissimo!
Thanks so much for stopping by and for your thoughtful reply Jon.
If we look at the total number of students, and how “good” they are — then we expect them to fall on a nice bell curve. Some students are naturally good, and some students are likely to need extra time to understand material.
Divide these students among different classes (schools).
There seems to be a feeling that if you measure each class, then the results should be a bell curve, the same as the original curve (eg, same average).
However, each class is selected randomly from the pool of students, so there will be variation between classes — independent of the abilities of the teacher or school.
So, saying a teacher/school is ‘bad’ because their class is ‘underachieving’ is poor logic.
It’s like being horrified that half a class is below average, or that the average person has less that two eyes.
Different students have different learning styles – so you might be lucky and have a new teacher come in that has the style of teaching that the student understands, so anecdotes of ‘super-teachers’ will exist, but will be far from the norm.
I realise this isn’t quite what the article is about, but I seem to want to vent about this.
I think you are right that the idea of being average is now somehow bad and we should demand excellence. Personally I like the idea of developing kids to be the best that *Them* they can be rather than trying to develop them into some externally defined *best*
Are you sure you want to go this way ?
Of the external influences – the coming to school hungry is the one that’s practical to fix fast. Estimated cost around $20 Million according to CPAG ( for breakfast at school). Since teachers can’t make as much difference as this then reduce pay ( or pay rises) by $500/teacher and you are ahead ! There is a big difference between saying that “Good teachers can change everything” and “teacher quality doesn’t matter”. This post goes into the latter area and in which case why pay teachers anything at all ?
I’m not saying that teachers don’t make a difference as its what is gets me up in the morning. But what I’m saying is that teachers can’t do it alone which is what the government seems to be saying.
The problem of the idea of hero teachers can also be found in tertiary education. There is a growing expectation that lectures are seen as theatrical performance.
I imagine that lecturing is difficult. Gaining and keeping people’s attention for an hour or two is pretty difficult.
Thanks for a though provoking post but there is a line which we must be careful not to blur. While I take your point that the educational authorities can place too much emphasis on the superhero teacher as the sole solution to endemic problems.
But unlike many professions, good teachers are those who give all of themselves for the sake of their students. It is almost missional; it is certainly passionate and can be consuming. There is a cost to our career choice and I know there are people who are not prepared to pay that full cost – they tend to be those teachers who are less successful and, might I say, more jaded about teaching.
Where is the line? I guess it does differ from person to person but, within the bounds of a decent work/life balance, we must ensure we give what is needed. Our students need us to be passionate, to be creative and to give all we can for their sake. Goodness knows, there are few others who will impact individuals and potentially society in the way we teachers can.