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Good Teaching is Not a Mathematical Formula

Published in ChicagoNow, October 14, 2013

After being a teacher for seven years and supervising teachers for 25 years, I still firmly believe that teaching is a calling and good teaching is an art. As wonderful as it may seem to find an objective mathematical formula for evaluating teachers, people who have worked with teachers over a period of time will tell you they can identify good teachers by watching them with children. Parents and children can always identify them – they just know.

People don’t enter the teaching profession to become wealthy, gain prestige, or come home feeling serene at the end of the day. They arrive long before the first bell rings to prepare and leave much later in the day than anyone imagines. They spend countless hours at home planning curriculum and looking over children’s work. If a child or their classroom is without something, they buy it. And the good ones possess an intangible quality that cannot be measured by student test results or complicated evaluation systems.

The good ones know how to toss out that carefully planned lesson that bombs with the children and to follow the children’s interests and ideas. The good ones know when a child who acts out needs a hug rather than a punishment, and when to send a positive message to the parents of a child with special needs who usually hear only about the problems. The good ones send emails like this:


In the time that your child was in my class this afternoon, I worked with her one-one to complete her “Puzzle Person Project!” Without completely spoiling the surprise, your child completed her project with support. She seemed to be in very good spirits. When I showed her work later to the special education teacher, she was almost moved to tears, and it was most heartwarming to see her responses. I thought this might make your day–it certainly made mine!

The email may have taken only a few minutes to write, but its impact was huge. The parents were also moved to tears and the child, whose self-esteem had been eroded by endless teacher reports of non-compliance and disapproval the previous year, said, “That makes me feel so happy.”

I recently read about the new teacher evaluation system for my community schools that was deemed “acceptable” to the teachers’ union and school board. Wow – it will definitely take a statistician to compile a rating that includes:

  • 10% based on the growth of all students in the school in reading and math (are there any other subjects that matter?)

  • 10% based on the growth of the students on the teacher’s roster in reading and math (so if you happen to teach art, your rating will be based on how well your students perform in reading and math – makes sense!)

  • 30% based on the growth of the students on the teacher’s roster in the subject s/he teaches (how to measure a student’s growth in music?)

  • Then there is “value added growth (VAG)” – it’s unclear what percent this comprises but it involves projecting the likely growth for each student based on multiple past assessments (using math to guess how much each child should progress?). At the end of the year, ECRA, an educational research firm, will combine the actual growth of each child with the projected growth scores and arrive at a VAG score for the teacher (more fancy math). If the VAG score is zero, the teacher is “proficient.” A higher score makes the teacher “excellent” and lower scores result in “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory.”

All of this makes my head spin. While I am in favor of creating more jobs for mathematicians (after all, my son is one), I wonder how much time this will take away from a principal actually getting into a classroom to observe teaching. I also cynically wonder if those “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” teachers will simply be shifted from one school to another as they have been in the past.

At a point in my career as a preschool director, I fell prey to the many administrative and educational seminars I attended about hiring staff. I placed ads, received glowing resumes and recommendations, conducted in depth interviews, and followed best practice in hiring the teachers with the most impressive credentials. What a disappointment many of them turned out to be. I abandoned this approach in favor of following my instincts about who would be good for the children. Granted preschool teachers do not have to be certified in the same way teachers for older children do, but I found that someone with the right instincts could be taught the rest with relative ease. On the other hand, someone who looked good on paper could not be taught to have the empathy, patience, and love of children that are at the heart of good teaching.

When I first started teaching high school English fresh out of college, I was given “basic” classes. That meant my students, in addition to being only a few years younger than I, were not expected to accomplish very much. I’m sure my VAG scores would have been abysmal, but luckily for me, my department chair believed the real value of teaching was reaching kids and inspiring them to think and read. Many of the boys in those classes were headed straight from high school to Viet Nam, so spending time diagramming sentences or reading Shakespeare didn’t mean all that much to them. Instead we read topical newspaper articles for essays, analyzed song lyrics for poetry, and discussed whatever books felt relevant to them. I like to think I was a good teacher for those boys, and I will always be grateful to my very subjective supervisor who taught me what was at the heart of good teaching.


by Laurie Levy
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