Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Jaime Escalante Effect

Jaime Escalante died on March 30, ending a career that has captured the public's imagination than almost any other teacher in history. Like most people, almost everything I know about the man comes from the movie "Stand and Deliver" which I enjoyed quite a bit. It showed a hard-working immigrant walk into a poor, hispanic school full of underachievers and, within a few years, establish an astoundingly successful AP calculus program.

Yet, since I have become a teacher I have had mixed feelings about Mr. Escalante's legacy. It feels almost like heresy to question the exalted status of a man whom, from all reports, made the impossible seem possible in his classroom. While I have no doubt that his individual accomplishments as a teacher are astounding, I have to question what he has done for the profession of teaching as a whole.

Teachers like Jaime Escalante are widely lauded both inside and outside of the education community, and they certainly have eye-popping statistics to show for their efforts. They are "superteachers" in every sense of the word, dedicating their every waking moment to the classroom and to pushing their students to high levels of success through sheer force of will. Escalante, by most reports I've read, was a powerful personality in his classroom. His walls were papered with motivational statements, and he often ruled with a sort of cranky, iron-fisted charisma. He butted heads with administration as well as fellow teachers who resented his celebrity status and felt that he was given special treatment. Of course, this special treatment often boiled down to having air-conditioning in his classroom, but such is the state of luxury in the public school system.

I have taught alongside superteachers like Escalante, and have felt my own share of petty resentment. Part of this is jealousy, of course. As a new teacher, struggling with the inevitable stresses and failures of learning this complicated profession, it was frustrating to see somebody working miracles next door. It was particularly frustrating when I would try to figure out what it was they were doing that I wasn't. Often, with superteachers, it is very difficult to pin down the secret of their success.

Of course there are some general statements you can always make about these folks. They are dedicated and care about their students. They have control of their classrooms and experience few discipline problems. When you observe their classes, however, you just can't quite put your finger on what is making their students perform so much better than the teacher next door. Often, it simply boils down to this nearly mystical knack for teaching that is annoyingly difficult for other teachers to emulate.

My problem with all of this is that superteachers rarely manage to spread their methods to their colleagues with any success. In my experience, they do all sorts of great things in their own rooms with their own students, but their influence on fellow teachers is surprisingly tiny. It is like an athlete who is naturally gifted playing on a team full of average players. The gifted athlete may produce eye-popping stats, but the other players cannot simply imitate that athlete's techniques and get the same results It isn't uncommon for highly gifted athletes to use techniques that, for other players, would result in complete failure.

The Jaime Escalantes of the teaching world also reinforce a stubborn attitude among both teachers and non-teacher alike. This is the belief that teaching is more of an "art" than a "skill." When I was a teacher-in-training during my college days, this seemed to be the dominant philosophy in the courses I was taking. We spent a shockingly small amount of time learning nuts-and-bolts skills for being teachers. Instead, we were taught about the history of public education and presented with a smattering of educational psychology. The heavy lifting of learning how to be a teacher was left until student teaching, and even then it was assumed that we wouldn't truly learn how to do our jobs properly until after our first year on the job.

The public looks at superteachers like Jaime Escalante and wonders why we can't all be like him. The answer is that every teacher can't be a superstar. Instead of expecting superteachers to save our schools, we need to look at all of the mere mortals who occupy 90% of our teaching positions. We need to develop a stronger professional community whose goal is to take a long look at every aspect of teaching and promote the ideas that work while weeding out the ones that don't. We need to promote a set of skills that can make a difference for every teacher in every classroom rather than focusing on the efforts of a few exceptional examples of teaching miracles. We need to talk to each other more about our craft and look critically at our practices. Maybe then, we'll all have a chance to stand and deliver to our students.

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