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Posted at 2:15 PM ET, 02/12/2011

Teacher: If I were Bill Gates (here’s how I would help improve the profession)

By Valerie Strauss

This is part of a commentary written by Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College. The full article, originally titled, “What It Takes to Become a Great Teacher,” was published in the Teachers College Record.

By Susan Engel
If I were Bill Gates (or someone like him) here is what I would do: I would endow several of the best colleges and universities to create a new kind of teacher education program.

Entrance to these programs would require good grades from a liberal arts institution (it’s hard to be a good teacher if you yourself are not well educated), a well written and lively essay, and an intensive interview.

The goal would be to attract ambitious, smart, thoughtful people, who demonstrate some of the interpersonal qualities essential to good teaching: comfort and ease with others, a genuine love of kids, and confidence in one’s own capacities. Programs in clinical psychology know that interviews matter when you are selecting people whose work depends on connecting with others. Programs in teaching should borrow this notion.

Often my most promising students decide to go to other kinds of graduate school which offer them greater financial support, or more money in the future. Many public schools offer decent salaries and great schedules in the long run, but we need to make teacher training more alluring in the short run. These new model programs should be very hard to get into, but should also be free to admitted students. Successful completion of the graduate program should include a stipend for the first three years of teaching in a public school. That’s a lot of support. But one good teacher is worth 10 good assessment tools.

Once we’ve attracted a talented pool of students, we need to prepare them differently than we have in the past. They need to learn a lot about the things they want to teach, more than they could have learned in college. They also need to learn how to observe children, and think about what they are seeing. They need to learn how to draw upon research and theory to come up with new solutions to whatever problems face them in the classroom.

Teaching students should spend much more time on the bookends of traditional programs: engaging in far reaching intellectual inquiry about education, children, and the material they hope to teach on the one hand, and intensive hands on supervised practice on the other. That would leave less time for mechanics, which is fine, since those things can be learned fairly quickly by excellent students.

By one measure, teachers encounter more than 200 unexpected moments in a day.

Unlike the surgeon whose clients are unconscious, a teacher’s young clients are all very much conscious. This is why teachers must devote time, energy, and effort to reflecting on their own practice. Young teachers need to learn how to record their daily encounters, explore their own motivations with specific children, think open mindedly about what might help a student improve, and understand what to do when they feel convinced they were talking to their students in a friendly way during math class, only to see on the video tape that they were talking at the children in a loud monotone. They need help learning how to change when things aren’t working.

Teachers must also learn about children – they need more than a course in child development.

Two years ago I watched an excellent 4th grade teacher in Hoboken, NJ. All of his specific lessons and rules were quirky. He did not teach by the book. The children had lots of freedom to choose their own activities. He spent a good deal of his time recording what they were doing, rather than instructing them. They spent a lot of their time making things, rather than practicing skills. He held meetings of the whole group when there was conflict between children, but rarely identified rules, or handed out consequences. As part of his graduate work he had studied developmental psychology in depth. He knew how to think and read about children. His students behaved well, loved school, and learned a lot.

Creating a critical mass of well educated, well prepared, ambitious new teachers is essential. It is also vital that these student-teachers have a chance to develop their skills before they are put in charge of a tough group of kids in a school with problems.

Medical students go through a rigorous curriculum in med school, but that’s only the beginning. They then spend at least two years working as interns in hospitals, under the guidance of experienced skilled doctors. Schools should offer the same kind of apprenticeships.

No current program that I know of provides enough opportunities for young teachers in the following critical areas: the chance to teach along side of a skilled teacher, participate in intense supervision with expert mentors, and a peer group strong enough to make teaching interesting and rewarding even when the circumstances are tough.

Because having like-minded colleagues is so essential to young teachers, if I were Bill Gates, I would provide specific public schools with financial incentives to hire seven or more of these newly prepared teachers within a three-year period. This way they would feel they were part of a robust group of highly selective, promising, and able teachers.

I’ve seen what happens in schools where there are seven or more smart, talented, well educated teachers who share ideas about their work. Even with lousy facilities and difficult students, the teachers love what they do and continue to be great at it even in tough circumstances.

Finally, young teachers need to be in serious conversation with other smart talented teachers. Most schools leave almost no time for open ended discussion about education, and most teachers have no precedent for initiating such conversations. A new teacher who makes conversation about learning and teaching a priority will be much better prepared than the one who knows four different ways to organize a lesson plan book. But this is a complex habit, and one that takes deliberate effort to acquire, and should be actively cultivated during training.

The demands facing teachers are enormous--not just because schools are inadequately funded but also because of this society’s unprecedented expectations for the education system: teachers are supposed to provide guidance, information, skills, and motivation to a huge and diverse population of children. Meeting this challenge requires the most talented young people in our society with the most rigorous training.

Recently I heard from a surgeon who is giving up his medical practice to become a public school teacher. He said, “I’ve already done the second most important profession. Now I want to do the first.”


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 12, 2011; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  bill gates, gates foundation, susan engel, teacher education, teacher preparation, teachers  
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Beautifully stated!! Ms. Engel understands how to improve student outcomes...I hope Mr. Gates is listening to this. I would add only one component to this- once these new innovative educators make it to the classroom give principals the autonomy in their budgets to reward them with bonuses for outstanding performance...eliminate the IMPACT type bonuses which are loosely connected to student achievement and difficult to truly analyze and instead provide principals with some control over their local budgets to reward the best educators who do more with less through ideas like cash bonuses, earning additional leave time, more professional development and new technologies and resources--teachers who do well earn these inventives...teachers who do not are moved out...

Posted by: teacher6402 | February 12, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

After the surgeon finds out about NCLB and Race to the Top - he will want to go back to being a surgeon.

Posted by: educationlover54 | February 12, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I'd admit those who had already demonstrated some commitment to working with children by working at summer camps, YMCA programs, leading church groups or teaching Sunday school. These experiences taught me a great deal about how kids think, how to motivate them and how to manage groups of kids in purposeful activity.

Secondly, I'd endow the professional organizations for content areas like ACTFL, NCTM, NSTA, NCTE, etc. These organizations operate on a shoestring and yet their conferences provide the most useful and cost effective type of professional development that teachers can apply to improve their practice.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | February 12, 2011 7:05 PM | Report abuse

One line in this post really caught my eye: "Often my most promising students decide to go to other kinds of graduate school which offer them greater financial support, or more money in the future."

That is unfortunate, because (as a college professor once told me) teachers are far more important than professors.

Also unfortunate is the fact that so many who go on to grad school in "academic" disciplines (as opposed to professional disciplines like education) and who hope to find work teaching in higher education discover too late how few permanent teaching jobs there are at the college level. A lot of these people would have made great teachers.

The misery of the grad school experience is evident in the posts and comments on blogs like this one:

100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School

Posted by: Sven2 | February 12, 2011 8:30 PM | Report abuse

Engel's comments are all "well and good" but she cannot ignore the elephant in the room - poverty. No matter how good a teacher may be the negative impact of poverty effects student readiness to learn in the classroom. How about ensuring that the poorest citizens (parents of these children) earn a living wage so they can properly prioritize their family needs. How about Gate's supporting after school enrichment programs in every title one public school so that children learn ballet, how to play the saxaphone, take ceramics or theater classes. A lot of learning takes place in quality enrichment (not test-based) after-school programs. Couple societal reforms with Engel's teacher training restructuring proposal and we just might have a working educational model tat the Finnish culture would be proud of!

Posted by: teachermd | February 12, 2011 8:40 PM | Report abuse

teachermd: you make some good point--except the notion that Gates should take extraordinary steps to help eradicate poverty. He's already committed most of his fortune to eradicating diseases around the world. And he's been thoroughly beaten up for anything he's tried in education, so don't expect him to hang in there.

no, teachermd, the source of money and clout to eradicate poverty We get the kind of government we deserve on every level.

In the District, we can only blame the quality of the schools on ourselves. Nasty Republicans or other doofuses in Congress or the Dept. of Ed or the White House haven't done it to us.

Only we can make a difference in public education, in various ways. When it comes to poverty, that is a matter of the will and resources of all of us. Priorities get sorted out for us by elected representatives.

It's a waste of time to expect our billionaires to do the heavy lifting. Dream another dream.

Posted by: axolotl | February 12, 2011 8:57 PM | Report abuse

Oh, lord. Another ed school? Sure, let's spend millions pretending that a bunch of money can produce another 70 teachers a year. Wow.

Teaching isn't hard. Teaching kids who aren't at grade level and don't want to learn--that's hard. But it's hard precisely because it's not really the teaching that's hard, but the absurd expectations.

Either way, no more ed schools. Spare the world that misery at least, Bill.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 12, 2011 9:17 PM | Report abuse

I think there are already excellent education schools out there. Alverno College is one. Michigan State. I could name more but the truth is a lot of teaching excellence is learned on the job. That is why experienced teachers are paid more. They are usually better.

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 13, 2011 1:59 AM | Report abuse

I think there are already excellent education schools out there. Alverno College is one. Michigan State. I could name more but the truth is a lot of teaching excellence is learned on the job. That is why experienced teachers are paid more. They are usually better.

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 13, 2011 1:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree with you, Georgia; my graduate experience at Bowie State's Montgomery County site was superior and indeed made me a much better teacher.

Posted by: lacy41 | February 13, 2011 7:56 AM | Report abuse


Poverty is real....but do some research on 90/90/90 schools...In these schools 90% of the students are minority, 90% are on free or reduced lunch, and 90% of the students are proficient on state tests...

"poor" kids can an administrator, I focus on what I CAN change in my school, not society's ills.

Posted by: rickyroge | February 13, 2011 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Teachermd this will sound harsh but it is reality. Teachers are not social workers, it is those teachers that become social workers that can't teach their kids anymore. I am not saying that one should pretend it does not exist but it can't be the first thing you see. Cal_lainier I sure hope you are not in a school because if you are you are now part of the problem.

Axoloti- you are so right DC education crisis is from DC problems. But it is not just incompetent government and school administrators, it is politics of helplessness that teachers and parents each play on each other. I have friends title one schools in the burbs with kids that are just as poor and speak no English and what those teachers do to engage and pull those kids up is amazing, yet all the teacher in DC can tell me is I work hard and the kids are poor. The problem of poverty is the expectations of our educators. Susan Engle is right need to rethink the motivations and incentives behind becoming a teacher and give more hands on experience and content learning. What we need to get rid of are all the politics of education classes that just set up conflict and don't help teachers become better or even like their job more.

Posted by: Brooklander | February 13, 2011 8:49 AM | Report abuse

Lots of interesting and worthwhile points from Susan Engel. I have two caveats, however. One is that the "mechanics" (which I take to mean curriculum and instruction) are in fact very important for the skill-based subjects and there is research that validates them, and beginning to be more. And getting it right is especially important for struggling learners. Second, Ms. Engel does not give enough hard information about the 4th grade classroom she observed. One day does not describe what that teacher's entire year with those children looks like, and I sense a desire on Ms. Engel's part to lionize hands-on projects over what she calls "practice." We all enjoy the engaging things we can do with students once they master the content and skills needed to reach outward, but it's hard to believe you can operate that way exclusively.

Posted by: jane100000 | February 13, 2011 9:32 AM | Report abuse

One of the most reasoned and enlightening posts I've read here. Jane1000... makes a keen observation, though. Indeed what was observed in that 4th grade class takes time to achieve, and implying that students can learn 'instead of practicing' is deceiving. No one becomes proficient at something without practice; the art is making that practice engaging or worthwhile enough for people to do it, and even then that's not always possible.

Posted by: pdexiii | February 13, 2011 10:04 AM | Report abuse

If I were Bill Gates (here’s how I would help improve the profession)

The reality is that it is not a question of being Bill Gates, but rather a question of having billions of dollars that can be used to improve public education in this country.

So what should someone do if they had billions of dollars and they wanted to improve public education in this country?

First of all they would not try to improve the profession.

Imagine if medical doctors in this nation were still using the methods and ideas of the 19th century.

Teaching is really still using methods and ideas of the 19th century. It is no wonder that it is not effective. Time to recognize that the methods and ideas were from a time when public education was producing individuals that could do limited reading, do arithmetic, and write words so that they could obtain jobs as clerk. It is interesting that many still do not recognize that these rather limited capabilities were really all that were necessary until the wide use of computers. Armies of clerks were required until then and writing skills were in actuality penmanship.

Big surprise that things have changed and these methods and ideas are no longer relevant.

The reality is that new ideas and methods are needed for public education in this nation.

These ideas and methods should derive from research in primary schools since the truth is that this is where change will have the greatest benefit on improving public education. If a child can not learn in the primary schools than it is likely that child will not learn later.

Then there is the question of reading. The reality is that children do not enjoy reading there is little chance that there will be improvement in public education. Contrary to popular misconception it is the ability to read that allows individuals to increase their abilities in thinking and not memorization. If children have been forced to memorize false facts does anyone believe that this will improve their thinking abilities. But when a child enjoys reading then that child will be read and come in contact with a large set of various information and ideas that will improve their ability to think.

Verbal ability is improved by children coming in contact with a larger set of words and not by being simply taught to memorize a limited set of words.

As an example of new ideas, why are we using the same 8 to 3 structure for all grades of public school? Why is the school day this way for the youngest children and seniors in high school. Yes at one time the overwhelming number of mothers in this nation stayed at home and so could be ready to accept their children at 3 p.m. But those days are long gone. Besides a longer school day for younger children would be offer a better opportunity of teaching children when they are young instead of trying to correct problems later.

Oops reached the limit.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 10:17 AM | Report abuse

With the exceptions of Cal_Lanier, georgia198305, and lacy41 I see teachers are buying this nonsense that the teachers are the problem and we have to improve the teachers.

If any one said that we have to improve the quality of children before they enter public school else they should not be allowed to enter public schools, there would be hysterical screams of racism and bigotry.

Time to recognize that adults should actually understand problems instead of simply blaming someone for the problems.

Yes our system from the 19th century no longer works as well as it did in the 19th century. Big surprise that computers have made it no longer to simply teach the limited skills required for clerks.

Look at the problems and come up with new ideas to fix the problems instead of the absurd idea that you can simply blame teachers.

I see that some teachers have become like children with parents that continuously blame their children for all problems. At some point these children believe that they are guilty for creating these problems.

By the way I am not now or ever been a member of the public school teacher party.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 10:35 AM | Report abuse

The norm for all professions and fields is a very small percentage of incompetent members of the profession or field.

A suggestion for all public school teachers that believe that the problem in public education is simply caused by incompetent teacher.

Seek professional psychological treatment while you still have a teaching position with medical coverage for psychological treatment.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who thinks we need more or different schools of education is part of the problem. Those institutions serve only as a source of jobs for the people who want to be 'involved' and 'part of the solution', but not in the classroom. Bsallamck is correct - time to make drastic changes to the way schools are run. Time to force districts to have more choices. Quit using the same hours/attendance requirements from 50 years ago. Let the smart kids/motivated kids learn at their own rate and quit tying them down to less able/motivated kids in school - it is not the rising tide's responsibility to lift all boats.

Posted by: peonteacher | February 13, 2011 11:42 AM | Report abuse

"I’ve seen what happens in schools where there are seven or more smart, talented, well educated teachers..."

Is the writer of this really aware that the implications of her statement is that the public schools now only have dumb, untalented, and poorly educated teachers?
"Unlike the surgeon whose clients are unconscious, a teacher’s young clients are all very much conscious."

When I worked in Wall Street we had clients and not customers. Apparently with progress schools do not have students but clients and surgeons do not have patients but clients.

Some how I prefer the surgeons with patients. Oh by the way the majority of surgery in this country in done with patients that are conscious with local anesthetics. Patients, or clients should I say, are only made unconscious when absolutely necessary because of the dangers with patients, oops I mean clients, who never regain consciousness.

By the way I would not use the idea of being conscious in regard to teaching since there is a great deal of evidence and research concerning learning while asleep.

Bases upon this evidence perhaps it would be better if clients that fall asleep in class are allowed and even encourage to sleep in order to learn.

Of course there are the states of sleep when the individual is not asleep.
Creating a critical mass of well educated, well prepared, ambitious new teachers is essential.

I love this as though with the allusion to a nuclear explosion.

Of course the writer misses that the implication is that teaching colleges now and for years have been creating poorly educated, unprepared, and unambitious teachers. Remember that many teachers in public school where from teaching colleges of 20 years ago.

If we use the same idea of the writer of substandard teachers in public school, then we should come to the conclusion that the teaching colleges are producing these substandard teachers because of the problem of substandard professors teaching in the teaching schools and teaching universities.

This should really go well with the peer of the writer at her teaching college.
Time to really recognize that usually their are not simply reasons for problems in public education or simple solutions.

Really time for a total rethink of the problems of public education.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 11:53 AM | Report abuse

where there are seven or more smart, talented, well educated teachers...
At the least, only 7 are needed.

The Magnificent Seven.

They rode into the public high school prepared for anything.

Unfortunately the students had automatic weapons.

Reading the writing of this professor is better than reading Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: peonteacher
Good ideas.

I believe that the emphasis has to be on reaching children when they are young.

A student aide in have classroom when children are young.

Total recognition that if students can not read or want to read, these students will never be able to succeed in learning.

Computers in the early grades where children have access on their own to reading on their own a large selection of children books where the child can tap on a word and hear the pronunciation of the word. Their needs to be recognition that teachings is not simply spending every moment on instruction to the entire class.

A large collection of physical children books available and not just books that are at grade level. The goal is to get children to read above grade level.

The longer day for younger children should not just be a matter of warehousing these children in an auditorium. Their should be sessions for separate classes.

Time to recognize that minimal wage in this country is low. Bring in part time workers for these schools after 3 pm. High schools students could even be used.

And peonteacher is right about the smart well motivated kids. Nothing will wear off by having kids of different skills in a class, but there is a positive effect when children see motivated children that are enjoying themselves by reading. At the least this might motivate a child that does not read to want to read.

Time to recognize that the public schools should no longer be places of teaching. There needs to be recognition that the public schools now need to be places of enabling learning.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Also the summer vacation for young children has to go.

We are no longer a nation where the farmers needed their children for the farm during this period.

Let the summer be the enrichment session for young children with a small number of teachers paid for this work with a large number of high school and college students employed at minimum wage.

Of course these type of suggestions cost money but the reality is that billions are now be spent on meaningless local standardized tests. The reality is that there is plenty of money for changes in public education if billions were not being wasted.

By the way we could also get rid of all those expensive worksheets from publishers that have to be bought every year.

Time to recognize that in education every dollar not spent directly on someone working with children is an expense that should be considered for cutting if you need more money to improve education.

For Americans who always want the quick and cheap fix I provide the following.

Make broadcasters only broadcast Recess and other similar programs after 10 pm.

Recess is directed to young children with the message to dislike public schools and the idea that the only worthwhile thing in public schools is the recess period.

So while Americans are spending billions to improve public education, they remain silent as everyday young children are told that education is boring and a waste of time.

In Great Britain there is actually a code for broadcasters where there are restriction on programming.

It is interesting that Americans now are outraged at "Skins" which is being shown at 10 p.m. while they remain silent about a program like Recess. Why do Americans believe that older children should not be shown the wrong message but it is perfectly okay with younger children?

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

There really is a problem at teacher colleges and universities in America.

How else explain the acceptance of NCLB with silence from the professors of schools at the absurdity of the idea that learning can be mandated?

How else explain the acceptance of reproach for not teaching "classroom management skills" instead of telling the Secretary of Education that teachers should not be expected in environments that are hostile to learning to be able to teach, and that schools systems should have policies to prevent disruption instead of the pretense that disruption in a classroom is normal?

How else explain the silence to the opportunist who only want to degrade teachers with the absurdity that the problem is that these schools are not producing the teachers that can create miracles in teaching such as Ms. Rhee?

How else explain the silence to the continuous actions such as mass firings and the attempt to remove tenure since these actions only will dissuade talented individuals from entering teaching when there is a low opinion of teachers?

How else explain the lack of new ideas to deal with problems in education from the the professors of these schools since the new ideas should be coming from these schools?

There is a problem in the teacher colleges and universities which should be leading in the policies regarding public education but for 10 years have only remained silent to the political opportunists that are destroying public education in this country.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Gates has already dedicated the bulk of his wealth to eradicating diseases. This "idea" would be a waste because of all the unionistas and no-change artists out there.

Further, as we see in the District, many teachers believe it is unfair, and worse, to consider the quality of teacher education in the course of hiring, evaluating, or improving/terminating teachers. So it is a third rail. Another self-destructive, teacher-centric, hurtful-to-Children position. Gates should not waste his time or money. And why be a savior when so many yahoos beat him up for even participating in education improvement.

Posted by: axolotl | February 14, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

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