Arne and the Alien Reflect on Effective Teaching


This is part four of a series in which I imagine what would happen if an alien visited the United States to understand school reform. You can read previous parts of the series here.

Doubts about what made an effective teacher were again creeping into the alien’s four stomachs.

“Well,” said Duncan, “how invigorating was that? Great teaching in action!”

“I don’t know, Arne,” the alien replied. “If those students are spending so much time on practice tests, how are they learning critical thinking skills and civics and all that important stuff?”

Duncan smiled. “Let me be absolutely clear,” the Secretary replied, sounding as if he was tired of repeating it over and over. “The president has said many times teachers should not have to feel they must teach to the test. What you saw in there was a teacher preparing her students for the jobs of the 21st century.”

“I know that’s what Obama says, but you just told me that teacher, where the students were taking a practice test, is effective.”

“Correct. But again, let me stress, we don’t want our teachers teaching to the test. We want them developing in their students the collaboration skills and critical thinking skills that will prepare them for the 21st century job market.”

“Yes, understood. I get that. Then why are they taking these practice tests?”

Duncan looked perplexed, as if the question made no sense. “Well, just look at the test scores in that class!”

The alien replied, “Yes, they’re very good. But is it because the teacher is teaching to the test with practice tests or because he is teaching his students how to think and collaborate?”

“I’ll say it again,” said Duncan, this time pausing for emphasis and with his mouth betraying the slightest flustered annoyance. “No one. Wants. Teachers. Teaching. To. The. Test. When we measure effectiveness, though, we must place a major emphasis on test scores. Is there any other way?”

By now, feeling overwhelmed by the cyclical logic employed by his host, the alien excused himself to the staffroom. It was empty. Standing before the mirror, he noticed his skin had turned a lighter shade of green – not the grassy green it was when he arrived on Earth, but more like a minty green. He felt sick.

Sticking his hand in his pocket, he recovered the note pressed into his palm by the sad-eyed girl in the effective teacher’s class. “She looked so bored,” he thought to himself.

The alien unfolded the note. Reading it, he felt tears welling in his eyes. Scrawled on the post-it in unsteady manuscript was a simple 5-word request:

Get me out of here.

The alien stared at the words and allowed them to penetrate his mind. He repeated them slowly and quietly. “Get me out of here.”

Sadness, anger, confusion, and disappointment entered his three hearts. He remembered the engaged happiness that practically blew out the windows in the ineffective teacher’s room. He remembered the bored sadness that hunched the shoulders of everyone in the effective teacher’s room.

“Get me out of here.” The more times he read them, the louder he became. He was pounding his fists on the wall now, almost in a rage, screaming so loud he felt his throat was on fire. “GET ME OUT OF HERE! GET ME OUT OF HERE!”

When he was spent, he looked in the mirror and saw tears streaming down his face. Another face looked back at him, too. It was the ineffective teacher. She was smiling.

“I’m sorry,” said the alien. “This trip is not at all what I expected. Privately I was thinking to myself that you were the effective teacher – doing so much for your students, teaching them what they need to know. But, who am I to say? I’m only here to visit your country and bring back ideas for my own planet. And if our schools need to look like the classroom of the other teacher, and test practice is what we need to do, then so be it. I’m just surprised. Something just doesn’t…feel right”

The ineffective teacher, smiling, tilted her head to the right with an understanding nod. She took a pad from her pocket, clicked open her pen, and wrote something. She clicked her pen shut, folded the note, and passed it to the alien, saying, “Just remember.”

The alien opened the note. Tears welled in his eyes again. He looked back at the ineffective teacher, who was still smiling. He wondered how she could write such a note, how she could believe the words that came from her pen.

Returning to the note and whispering, he read the four words aloud, as if to confirm their validity or the truth of such an optimistic statement:

“It will get better.”

To be concluded…

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11 responses to “Arne and the Alien Reflect on Effective Teaching

  1. The Atlantic published a really interesting article on effective teaching (and how to identify it) a while ago–have you read it?

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/what-makes-a-great-teacher/7841/

  2. @ thatwritinglady
    Yet another propaganda piece on TFA . . . “Teach for Awhile.” Crap, pure crap.

  3. I absolutely agree that TFA isn’t the best model (obviously, you want to train teachers to be in it for the long haul, not just two years)–but what do you think of their findings about “grit” and its relationship to effectiveness?

  4. (I guess what I’m really interested in knowing is which parts of the article strike you as “pure crap”? The research data? The conclusions drawn from that data? The accounts of the fun that the kids are having in the high-scoring teachers’ rooms? The interviews? I don’t mean this sarcastically at all–it would help me a lot in forming my own opinions to know what you think this article is missing.)

  5. If a magna cum laude Yale graduate can’t figure out the problems with TFA and the propaganda in this piece, I certainly can’t waste my valuable time trying to point it out to you. I would direct you, however, to take a close look at the comment left by “alxwhite” after the article; s/he says it better than I ever could.

  6. Dear Just a Teacher: I am very sorry that I offended you. You must believe that I said something truly thoughtless and unkind to warrant the rudeness of your response, and I apologize for whatever I said to upset you. I honestly didn’t mean any harm. I am a naturally curious person, and I genuinely wanted to understand your point of view in more depth. I enjoy debate; I think that if you approach it with good intentions and respect, then everyone can learn from it, but I see now that this was not the right venue for that. Thank you for engaging in this conversation, and worry not–I won’t be posting on this thread again.

  7. I have to revisit that article, have not had time to read it just yet. TFA, as far as I’m concerned, is an abomination. It is based on the premise that 5 weeks are enough to prepare someone for a teaching career, and with reformers taking up its cause, the extension of that fallacy is that someone with 5 weeks training is equivalent in ability and value to someone who has been teaching for many years. How does that make sense? I highly recommend you google Diane Ravitch’s writings about TFA – she is more eloquent than most.

    And by the way, while I’m glad we have a good dialogue going here, let’s not have it at the expense of decency. Respect for all, please 🙂

  8. It’s not only that they feel 5 weeks is enough to prepare them for a teaching career, but the hubris shown in their belief that after training for 5 weeks, and putting their two years in, they then feel they can’t go any further in the system as it is now, so they need to go into educational administration so they can really influence the profession. How sad it is that there is no requirement in educational administration graduate programs that potential students have substantial classroom experience behind them . . . and that would be far more than two years, in my opinion.

    In general, I think there’s an incredible arrogance on the part of many newcomers to the educational field that with very little, or even no, experience, they can teach those of us who have been around for many years, in some cases, longer than their entire lives, how to do our jobs. Some examples of this are charter schools, TFA and other similar programs, and those who author books, create DVDs, etc. on various topics throughout the disciplines, sometimes without ever even having been in front of a classroom themselves. The idea that a 20-something can head a school, for instance, is beyond ludicrous. The fact that it is becoming de rigueur that positions of power and influence are going to those who are young and inexperienced, over older, far-more experienced people shows a sense of entitlement far out of proportion to their qualifications for these positions. I’d like to believe they’ll grow up and realize this, but it seems unlikely when they are being puffed up by those who have the gall to hire them for these posts.

  9. Pingback: Remainders: Parents, teachers, Michiganders respond to TDRs | GothamSchools

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