Teacher effects

Published by Lori Pickert on January 12, 2009 at 05:38 PM

“Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.” — Malcolm Gladwell, Annals of Education: Most Likely to Succeed (New Yorker)

There’s a lot here that I think is interesting in terms of homeschooling as well as general education.

One, the teacher is more important than the environment. Good education doesn’t require money and fancy accoutrements as much as it requires an adult who is good at helping children learn. There was a bit in the paper last week about how Detroit is asking parents to donate paper, pencils, soap, etc., to their schools — even though they receive $11,000 per student. Still, I hear people say that homeschooled children are being cheated if their families can’t provide them with all the “luxuries” available at public school.

Two, good teachers accelerate children’s learning as much as bad teachers bring it to a grinding halt. The majority of children in average schools probably have a mix of teachers from the wonderful to the mediocre to the bad (or, just as ineffective, the not-a-good-fit). So does the overall effect even out? A great teacher makes up for a bad teacher? But also vice-versa — whatever gains a great teacher is able to make can be erased the following year. I know dedicated teachers who are trying to teach a project-based curriculum but who feel frustrated beyond belief that the next year their students will plop right into a traditional classroom. Without multiage classes or looping, you can’t sustain the good effects. On the other hand, multiage classes and looping also sustain the effects of bad teaching.

(Looping is when one teacher teaches the same class for more than one year.)

There is an anti-homeschooling contingent that believes that parents cannot possibly be as good at teaching as certified teachers, even as evidence mounts to prove the contrary. If homeschooling parents are doing a good job, however, it stands to reason that their children are probably also learning a year and a half’s material in the time an average public school student learns a year’s worth. No wonder they have so much time for socializing and developing their interests.

Note in the last line of that quote up above: halving class sizes requires hiring twice as many teachers. If schools have so much trouble hiring great teachers in the first place (and evidently they do), how are they going to hire twice as many?

Having interviewed and hired teachers for several years, I can say that hiring an exceptional teacher is very, very difficult, even when you know exactly what you are looking for. Schools, after all, are restricted to choosing from what’s available. Can we make more great teachers and less bad ones? Can we allow that good homeschooling parents are better than a hit-or-miss series of public school teachers?


Comment by Christina on January 12, 2009 at 06:46 PM

Interesting post. My two initial thoughts are:

1. I don't believe we will EVER be able to make (or procure) more "great" teachers until we can pay them more. And then how do you test greatness? By testing the students? Ack. Such a difficult issue.

2. As a homeschooling parent, your last question taps into all my deepest insecurities . . . am I, in fact, a "good" teacher? I will admit that I do a lot of things well, and I give my children many advantages in learning that they might not have in the schools, but I also know my weaknesses all too well. I am often impatient and even downright grumpy sometimes. I wonder if I qualify as a "good" teacher, let alone a "great" one. Am I giving my kids the extra half-year or taking it away?

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 12, 2009 at 07:29 PM

i have to say, i don’t think salary is the big issue. i think education schools are churning out teachers who are cemented in the status quo. and the status quo is not achieving what we need to achieve.

btw, here’s an interesting bit re: teacher salaries:


how do you test for greatness? great question. definitely *not* by testing the students.

re: (2), sorry to tap into your deepest insecurities ;^) but i think this is something really worth pondering. maybe x many days a year we are that 85th percentile great teacher, and some days we are that 40th percentile bad teacher. but i think that by definition homeschooling parents are more invested in their children than the vast majority of teachers, are more willing to continue to strive for their children’s success even in the face of tough odds (many parents choose to homeschool their kids when the public school has failed them in some way), and as long as they continue to keep trying, they must be on a path toward bettering themselves as teachers.

taking already-great teachers out of the equation and comparing all homeschooling parents to good-to-poor public school teachers, which group is going to make more strides in improving the service they offer? i would argue there is almost zero incentive for an employed bad teacher to improve and possibly no way for them to improve. but a good (not even great) homeschooling parent starts out at square zero and keeps striving to improve, keeps trying new things, keeps exposing him- or herself to new methods and materials, keeps reassessing their success and failure .. i would say homeschooling parents probably judge themselves more for their children’s success or failure, whereas mediocre and bad teachers usually blame everyone else.

so, i would say .. even if some days you are the bad teacher (and we all are), as long as you care and keep working to improve your stats, you most definitely have the potential to be your child’s *great* teacher.

Comment by Amy on January 12, 2009 at 07:53 PM

Christina, I am grumpy too. Patience is something I work on (and usually fail at) every single day.

But as far as the teachers in public schools go, I've been saying this for years. Around here (and I'm sure it's the same most places) there is much talk about getting into a "good" school system, and a "good" school, and I say, You can be in the best school system in the world, but if you get a crappy teacher, it doesn't matter. Besides, now school systems are rated based on how they're doing on the No Child Left Behind scores, and that's not the main criteria in my book.

As far as trying to find good teachers, unions, unions, unions. Is it like that everywhere? The local elementary school doesn't even get to choose its own teachers. Think about that: They might have a vision for the school (although from what I've seen, I seriously doubt it), but THEY DON'T GET TO CHOOSE THEIR OWN TEACHERS. It's based on seniority within the district. So if four teachers put in for an open slot, say first grade at such-and-such a school, the one with the most seniority gets the slot. It doesn't matter if that particular teacher is not the best fit. That's the way it is in every single district, all 30-something of them in the smallest state in the country. Why yes, that's a problem too. Thirty-something different contracts. It's absurd. And it's really, really hard to get rid of a bad teacher.

I'd guess many potentially good teachers are completely turned off by this system. I know I was. When I went back to school for an English degree I considered adding in the classes for English education to get certification, but I didn't really want to teach in a public school. I figured the administrative stuff would drive me crazy. My adviser said it was a lot of extra classes for a fallback plan that I didn't even like that much.

And then I can't even count the number of my classmates in high school who decided to major in elementary education because "how hard could it be? I've already passed [first/second/etc] grade" and to get summers off. THESE ARE NOT THE PEOPLE I WANT TEACHING MY KIDS.

Sorry to yell. You hit a nerve. ;)

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 12, 2009 at 08:16 PM

amy, there are a lot of former teachers who are now homeschooling as well as teachers who are currently teaching reading this blog, and i know they all are well acquainted with the same kinds of problems that you are talking about.

the school doesn’t even get to choose its own teachers? oh my. that’s a new one on me, and a new low.

re: what christina said .. does the good/bad teacher effect put pressure on a homeschooling parent? well .. i’m okay with that! i don’t think “as good as the public schools” is what we should be aspiring to. (i often get asked that — if i think what we are doing is equal to the public school.) we should be aspiring to our best, just as we aspire for our children to be their best.

and amy, as depressing as it may be, the majority of students majoring in education that i met and talked with fell into that group you describe — the group that thinks it would be great to have summers off or have the same schedule as their kids. and i’m with you — that doesn’t sound like a “great” teacher in the making.

Comment by Amy on January 12, 2009 at 08:26 PM

Yikes, I hope I don't offend any of the teachers who are reading. I do know/have known some excellent teachers, and mostly I see them frustrated with the way things are. I think it takes an incredibly passionate person to retain their enthusiasm for teaching when confronted with so many obstacles.

And no, I'm not trying to do what the public schools do either. I get asked that question sometimes, or, more frequently, I see courses or field trips offered for homeschoolers that are the same ones offered to public school kids, and I think, well, if that's the sort of experience I wanted for my kids, I'd send them to school. I'm not trying to replicate school at home. (Although sometimes I wish I could send a kid to the principal's office, but that goes to my patience problem!)

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 12, 2009 at 09:02 PM

i wasn’t trying to imply you would insult the teachers who read this blog, amy — just saying that working in education really brings you face to face with these problems! no worries. :^)

any teacher (well, any person) who is reading this blog is obviously exceptional in every way! ;^)

re: comparing homeschooling to public school, i have two reactions to this. when non-hs’ing parents ask me about it, i usually think (and sometimes say) that being “as good as” public school is a pretty uninspiring goal to set. if i didn’t want something different, why would i go to all this trouble?

second, i often think that hs’ing families don’t take *near* enough advantage of their freedom and opportunity to customize their children’s education. many hs’ers *do* stick very close to a model of traditional schooling. why not take advantage of this freedom to really do something different? something more?

lol re: principal’s office .. in my school i *was* the principal, so my kids can’t escape that. ;^)

Comment by Christie on January 12, 2009 at 09:29 PM

Golly there is a lot to touch upon here!
- First, I'm glad that Christina hit upon what I am sure most of the homeschoolers were sheepishly thinking, and thank-Lori, for putting away our fears of inadequacy quite nicely.

- I also live in a (large urban) district where schools cannot select their own teachers. My closest school is a magnet school for place based education and environmentalism. They have a definite manor in which they want to be teaching and they spend a lot of time learning outdoors. Whenever they have an opening they cannot select a teacher. They have to start from square one to teach that teacher about what they are doing and see over the year if the placement is a match. Luckily if the ideologies are not a fit usually the teacher asks for another placement, but sometimes it takes a few years.

- My husband is a high school teacher. I like to think he is one of the great ones. I certainly know he works hard and is well liked and remembered by many of his students ones, but he is a great teacher only to a small portion of the 130+ kids that sit in his classroom each day each trimester. His style isn't going to work at all for some of those kids and for the biggest chunk of them it is only fine for them.

- I do think teacher pay should be higher. I know my husband faced a lot of overt pressure from his parents to select a better paying career, and he also faced internal pressure, especially in those early years, seeing his college peer group do very well financially. How many more very bright college students would choose to go into teaching if the pay were at last close to comparable to what they could earn in other fields also looking for their talents.

- My husband's teacher education was a joke. It couldn't have been easier. Luckily, his program allowed for a lot of practical education in classrooms with mentor teachers. But his lecture and theoretical classes were useless.

- Testing has nothing to do with teacher skills. To start with bad teaching can be good drilling. Good test scores but a decreased love of learning. I also think everybody knows who the great teachers are and who the poor teachers are. Parents and kids talk and administrators should be observing. It isn;t objective but especially on either end of the spectrum, it is obvious.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 12, 2009 at 09:42 PM

christie, thank you for your excellent comment.

what an interesting point that even a great teacher can’t perfectly meet the needs of every student — and you’re absolutely right — although that is obviously an impossible standard! :^)

public school teachers have the pressure of having to at least try to meet the needs of an enormous number of students who change each year. at least at home, even if we struggle, we can continue to apply ourselves to improving how we work with our children each year. (without their being replaced with new children with different challenges ;^) — at least we can make headway! public school teachers usually have to say goodbye to their students just as they finally get them figured out.)

re: teacher education, i hear this *all the time*. all. the. time. when is it going to change?

re: everyone knowing who the great and who the bad teachers are. so, so true. but — isn’t it extremely difficult to get rid of a “bad” teacher? someone who everyone knows is not good at teaching but who hasn’t done anything overtly wrong?

it was a kind of jumbly post with some half-formed thoughts — sorry for that! ;^) but hey, it’s a monday. and my brain was jumbly!

Comment by Deirdre on January 12, 2009 at 09:48 PM

Lots of interesting thoughts above, and I'm finding it difficult to compose my response.

First, I can't agree more that it is 99% about which teacher your child has, rather than how good or bad the school's reputation is. I'm amazed at the laissez faire attitude so many parents have about who their child's teacher will be.

I have to disagree that salaries aren't an issue. The people you described pursuing an elementary ed degree because of the schedule would not be allowed into such programs if they were more competitive in the first place. Sadly, most people have the same attitude toward public-school teachers as reflected in the above comments, and in our present culture, respect for a profession and attracting the best and brightest are tied to salary.

I taught at the university level for 2 years, in a very poor elementary school for two years, and at a high school for six years. I did meet bad teachers that I was embarrassed by, and one whom I worked diligently to have removed from his position. But, honestly, they were the exception. We all had different styles, but I saw heroes every day, who weren't making 1/2 of what I say posted on that link (California salaries?), constantly changing, reinventing, re-evaluating themselves, their materials, their techniques. And giving so much more than 40 hours a week to their students. So I can't help but be irked whenever people talk about "summers off" etc.

All that said, I do believe a parent can be the best teacher of all for a child (my favorite parenting book is You Are Your Child's First Teacher). Sadly, there are as many if not more parents out there with poor parenting skills as there are bad teachers. Thankfully, most of those parents have no interest in homeschooling.

Lastly, whether it be a public-school teacher or a parent, if you are willing to really see a child, to listen to them and make space for who that child is in your plans and ideas, then I believe it doesn't matter if you have grumpy days or off-moments, you are already a great teacher.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 12, 2009 at 10:48 PM

deirdre, you make an excellent point about salary. i think that link sends you to another link that lets you look up average schools in your area, wherever you are. and the salaries mentioned for california are certainly not indicative of my area either.

when i said i didn’t think it was all about salary .. mm .. i have said this before, but what i think is most important is that most of the people being drawn to education are people who liked school .. therefore they are more invested in keeping the status quo. i think if we want different kinds of teachers it’s going to require a complete overhaul of the system. and different schools would attract a different sort of people who wanted to teach at those different schools .. an upward spiral, if you will.

re: “summers off”, i’m sorry if *i* irked you :^) but i have personally had acquaintances who told me that’s why they chose teaching *and* when i interviewed education students for jobs i always asked them why they were pursuing teaching as a career. the most common answers i got were for the hours/summers off (usually because they thought it would mesh well with mothering) and because their mother was a teacher. and these students were from an excellent state university with a theory-heavy reputation. sigh. (these same students, by and large, would tell me cheerfully that project-based learning would never work in real life. but that’s another story.)

i’m glad you’ve worked with so many excellent teachers; i certain know and have worked with many excellent teachers as well. but when i think about my life as a student, in a rural town in the midwest, it is hard for me to think of more than a couple great teachers i had over my entire student career.

you are so right that everyone, teacher or parent, is going to have grumpy day and off moments. one of the most common things people say to me about homeschooling is “i could *never* do that; being with my kids all day would drive me crazy!” i always think .. how strange .. i mean, you are already their parent .. that’s kind of a full-time job.

deirdre, thank you for your comment; i hope you didn’t think we were teacher bashing! i have way too many teacher friends to ever do that. but .. i do want to see improvements and changes to the education system in our country. so those good teachers can be supported to do what they need and want to do.

Comment by Christina on January 12, 2009 at 11:51 PM

Ooooo, such good stuff to come back to this evening. Thank you to everyone who admitted to having similar insecurities about being a good teacher to their own children. As always, hearing others' experiences, being a part of a community, helps to mitigate my own fears and frustrations.

re: what Lori said about aspiring to be *better than*, not just "as good as" public schools . . . AMEN. There are so many reasons I decided to homeschool; it's always so hard to pinpoint one, or even several, but the overarching belief is that I can do it BETTER at home, in so many ways.

I agree that homeschoolers often don't take advantage of the freedom to customize education and make it *better* for, or more suited to, the individual child. I find myself falling into that trap all the time. We started homeschooling this year (my first child's kindergarten year) and I have often felt that I was at a disadvantage, not knowing what she *should* be doing as a kindergartener, what she *should* know, etc. In the last six or so months, I have adjusted my way of thinking and realized that it may be an advantage that I don't have any preconceived notions of what my kids *should* be doing. Instead, we do what they WANT to be doing, and in a way that works for them.

Comment by Deirdre on January 13, 2009 at 12:05 AM

Not at all---I love the atmosphere at Camp Creek that challenges all of us to do more, allow our kids to do and be more. But I had to speak up for the good ones out there;-)

The link above only gives options for counties in CA. Obviously Utah's are pitifully different.

I forget sometimes that I didn't have the public school experience from the other side of the seat (most of my teachers were nuns and Jesuits). I probably would have a more visceral experience of the poor teachers out there. I have to add one last point though.

I think it is GREAT for homeschoolers to not attempt to recreate whatever schools are providing---there is so many better options! I can easily admit that. But I hope when thinking and talking about teachers, homeschoolers can also keep in mind that they aren't dealing with what teachers are either---a large number of children who don't have a basic sense of safety/security at home. As we work to provide more options for everyone, we have to keep in mind who is going to teach those who don't have an advocate.

Lori has written here before how it doesn't have to be one or the other---teachers don't have to be bad in order for homeschooling to be good.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 12:14 AM

part of my problem with standardized testing is that communities seem to think they have a “great school” if test scores are high. as though that is what makes a great school. again .. setting the standard too low.

whether at home or at school, we need to be setting our goals *high* and always thinking about how we can make things better .. a better fit, a better balance, a better attitude .. not to overwhelm ourselves but to put the focus where it belongs, on what matters.

i’m feeling bad that some of what i wrote today may be taken as teacher bashing and that is *not* what i intended. i would like to see more great teachers — and i would like to see more opportunities for teachers to become great — but there are plenty of great schools and teachers who are out there giving it their all every day, and we need to support them as a community.

re: customizing .. it seems like many homeschooling families think their choices are limited to a handful of common choices. they don’t realize (or maybe they realize too late?) that a fully self-designed model is possible. maybe it seems like too much work?

i think you are right, christina, that you are actually at an advantage to not be drilled in what kindergarten children *should* know/do/etc. so many times, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, limiting what kids *can* do! what difference does it make, anyway? another place where homeschooling has schooling beat is that children don’t need to ascend through the grades in an orderly fashion .. they can simply work at their challenge level in each area every day .. no matter how that would be defined at school. and that is where kids should be.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 12:38 AM

deirdre, absolutely -- there are good and bad versions of all kinds of schooling. i always try to give a shout-out to the great teachers and schools.

you are so right -- and i think i’ve talked about this before on the blog -- that teachers and schools are burdened with an entirely different set of challenges than the average homeschool family.

actually, that’s one of the reasons i wonder why more homeschooling families don’t take more advantage of that fact .. they *don’t* labor under the same heavy burdens, so .. ?

even a *great* school is operating with a completely different set of requirements than a family.

ah, sorry about the link .. i didn’t even try it, i just misunderstood and thought you could look up any area. my bad.

“As we work to provide more options for everyone, we have to keep in mind who is going to teach those who don't have an advocate.” deirdre, you are absolutely right. whether your children are in public school, private school, charter school, or homeschool, our society has to care about public education because that’s what educates the bulk of our society.

Comment by Sam on January 13, 2009 at 12:41 AM

This is a very interesting post.

I had many good teachers at school, far too many bad teachers (whose impact was felt far beyond their particular subject) but I have been unable to think of any "great" teachers - in school.
My one experience with a great teacher was as an adult, returning to music lessons. My music teacher inspired me to strive for more, to have confidence and self-belief, and to broaden my knowledge, which increased my love of music. I owe her a lot.

This is the kind of teaching environment I would like to provide for my children, so they can achieve their full potential. From your blog, I am learning that I will need to keep striving for this goal - as they change and develop, so I must change and develop with them.

Comment by Dawn on January 13, 2009 at 01:45 AM

Wow! Thanks for such a great discussion. It's getting late here so I can't add much.
I taught high school in a Title 1 (read poor) school for 5 years in Cali. I did work with a lot of really great teachers who were trying really hard to change the way things were done... and most of them were those ones you talked about that became teachers because they loved school... luckly they were able to see that changes were needed even though they loved it! I was that teacher who hated school as a kid and was hoping to make it better for even just a handful of kids. We were up against not only flaws in the system but also those kids who were much more worried about getting beat up or were their next meal was coming from or that parent who is in jail. Challenges that make it so difficult, if not impossible, to focus on what someone is telling you is important to know!
I was lucky to teach Health, Child Devleopment and Marriage and Family. Topics that hit home with these students.

My teacher certification program was a joke also. I did not go on to get my masters (as many teachers do by adding just a few more classes) because I was ashamed and felt as if I was just paying for my degree.

What was said about hs kids and freedom... I love that right now. I looked up the standards for Primary (we are in Canada right now - all the same issues by the way) and was distressed at what they wanted these 5-year-olds to do... after a few months I had had enough and certainly don't plan on holding her to those standards at home.

Thanks for this great discussion. I guess I added a little more than I thought. Hot topic!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 01:46 AM

sam, thank you! i’m happy to be putting out that message. :^)

Comment by Amy on January 13, 2009 at 03:27 AM

not a dumb post if it inspired so much discussion! I enjoyed it thoroughly. One of my best friend is a high school teacher - photography- and she is my most ardent homeschooling supporter - she is definitely one of the *good* ones - the point she brings home to me is that regardless of my weaknesses, no one is going to be invested in his learning the way I am (and, as he ages, he is!) - also- I give myself a lifetime of permission to learn and grow as his facilitator. Cannot be said for any teacher, even the best of the best.
I have learned that she and I are NOT on opposite sides of the spectrum. We both deeply want to inspire independent, creative existence. We believe in it for ourselves and for "our students"...whomever they are.
But the take home message from this post is not lost on me - the gift of time to explore a thing deeply, to work at one's own pace, and the inherent incentive of loving my child and desiring his happiness drive me to persevere in my lifestyle.
I didn't read this in any way as a bash on teachers. Seems to me this is ultimately about personal responsibility - as a parent or a teacher, and being willing to rise to the occasion when action needs to be taken. I empathize with the position of the good teacher that has a style that doesn't resonate with an able student. That kind of frustration requires tremendous resiliency. I know :) - I am the "teacher" at work - I am the training supervisor for all of our technical staff. Sometimes the best thing I can do is find the right mentor for the person - it CERTAINLY is not always me...

Comment by jen on January 13, 2009 at 03:56 AM

Ah, what a fantastic discussion - so much here! I'm going to be thinking about this for days.

As a matter of fact, my mind is racing so fast that I can't put together a decent comment, so I'll just say thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Comment by Sarah Jackson on January 13, 2009 at 04:11 AM

Wow! That was a lot of great stuff to read. I don't know how much I can add that hasn't already been said, but I will second the "right fit" aspect of teachers and students. We just moved my son from one math teacher to another and he's like a different kid. Excited about math again, feeling successful. Amazing.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 04:34 AM

amy, good! i’m glad it didn’t sound that way to you, because i certainly didn’t mean it that way. some of my best friends are teachers! :^) and thank you for your thoughtful comment .. i agree with everything you say! :^)

jen, thank you! :^)

sarah, re: this idea about teacher and student fit .. i really think teaching teams are wonderful for that reason .. because if one teacher can’t connect with a student, odds are, the other one can. that’s great about gunnar .. i’m really happy for him!

Comment by Alice on January 13, 2009 at 10:42 AM

I would like to add an international perspective to this discussion. I went to school in Australia and my daughter is currently in public school in Italy.

I grew up in Canberra - Australia's capital - which has (or had, I haven't kept up to date) a slightly different school system to the rest of the country. Highschools (grades 7 through 12) are divided into two separate schools - high school; grade 7 through 10; and colleges; grade 11 through 12. I didn't go through an exam system, we had continuous assessment. Except for year 7, where the curriculum was obligatory, we could make up our own curriculum and schedule. We could choose individual course units (lasting one term) and the teacher. At the college end of high school, you could tailor your curriculum down to the number of hours.

I hated school in general, but I did have some memorable years where I really enjoyed school, because of the teachers. I don't know wether the schools were free to choose their teachers or not, but some schools did have a better core of teachers than others. The highschool/college (public) that I went to was renowned in many fields - from arts through music and science (they even offered rock climbing and caving as extra-curricular activities).

At primary school I enjoyed a wonderful two years in a multilevel class (grades 5 and 6) with two very talented and motivated teachers (my brother attended a regular 6th grade class in the same school and his experience was completely different).

The Italian system is quite different. Until recently, primary/elementary classes had one teacher for the whole five years. Now they have a core of two or three teachers, for the whole five years. Obviously parents spend a lot of time trying to get their child into a 'good' class, because they only get one chance. Having one teacher for five years has it's advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, if the teacher pigeonholes you, you have no chance to change. If you get a mediocre teacher, you will have five mediocre years.

My daughter had a really good first year but is not having such a good second year. I wonder if there are advantages of a teacher teaching the same grade for several years in a row? I wonder if it gives the teacher a chance to 'perfect' their approach. Travelling up the five grades means there is a five year gap, before you teach the same grade again - perhaps it doesn't give you a chance to learn from your mistakes?

I had a discussion with a teacher, over Christmas, who maintains that you need to be a qualified teacher in order to teach. I think she is probably right - as long as you are talking about school. Looking after a class of students definitely requires many skills that most of us don't have - but homeschooling is different. I don't see it as 'teaching' so much as 'guiding' - the same way as we facilitate our child's learning to crawl and walk, learning to use the toilet, learning to eat, learning to socialise.

I taught English as a second language for some years. I came to the conclusion that 'to teach' is the wrong verb. It is the student who is 'learning'. I learnt all sorts of techniques (or tricks) to help the student learn without putting in too much effort, but it really all seemed a crazy dance on my part. My favourite students were the ones who came motivated with a real need to learn (the language) - an intense interest or an exam, for instance. These students (one-to-one) would come with a barrage of questions, and all I did was help them find the answers and model the language. I wasn't a very qualified teacher, nor did I consider myself a very good teacher - but these students did very well.

I hope this doesn't seem a long ramble - this is a topic that has sparked so many issues. Thankyou Lori - it is rare to find a space where you you can discuss school in a critical, yet constructive, way. Many parents are critical of school - yet accept it as their child's lot - school is supposed to be boring, hard, humiliating, exempt of choice - seems to be a common attitude.

If schools could choose their own teachers (and teachers could choose their own schools) then I think we would be on a good path for building good schools.


Comment by Alice on January 13, 2009 at 01:02 PM

Some years ago I read about a study done somewhere in America on children (pre-schoolers, I believe). From what I remember, some of the children were put into childcare to see if that enhanced their learning, while the other children were provided with educational toys, etc. in their homes and their mothers were instructed as to how they could interact with their children to enhance their learning. The children at home had much better outcomes than their professionally instructed counterparts.

I think that the outcome of that study relates both to why homeschooling is a good choice, and is also a key to what could be done to help improve the outcome for the children from the poorer schools that many of you have mentioned. I don't think you can divorce the child from the family - but school, from my experience, does try to do that.

I have heard of one school programme that traded traditional homework for time spent with parents and caregivers. Wouldn't it be great if parents could score 'homework points' for doing something meaningful with their kids?

Besides the teachers, a class atmosphere is also influenced by the families of the students. A friend of mine's son was in a class with bullying problems. When the teachers held a meeting to discuss the problem, very few parents turned up. Motivated parents usually make for motivated students and vice-versa.


Comment by Alison on January 13, 2009 at 01:25 PM

"by definition homeschooling parents are more invested in their children than the vast majority of teachers, are more willing to continue to strive for their children’s success even in the face of tough odds" - absolutely I agree with this.

Now if you put me in a classroom with 20 kids I know I'd be a bad teacher. For a start I know I'd be so stressed out trying to do the best for everyone that I could not take the pace. I absolutely admire what classroom teachers do whether they are average or great. The teachers who struggle, I'd rather they did something else!

Am I the absolute best teacher for my kids? Most likely there is someone else out there who could do better, who already knew how to do this when I was taking baby steps. But then, would they want to do it day in and day out for a whole childhood with no pay while juggling all the others things I do? Do they care as much about the result as I do?

Most teachers don't trust kids in the way that parents can and will do. A homeschooled kid who appears to do nothing academic at home for year upon year will be learning more about life than a child in the environment of a classroom where they would most likely learn that their ideas, inspirations, and their way of thinking even, are wrong. Learning is not a one size fits all deal and I think parents are in a strong position to deal with that in a way a teacher can't.

I hear people say that they could never homeschool because they'd not get their child to listen to them. Isn't that the whole point? A parent has the opportunity to listen and learn in a way most teachers can't. It's about valuing the child as a human being no matter what the child's desire, strengths and weaknesses are. Neither teachers nor homeschool parents should need to force children to learn. I think there's more time to address this when kids are homeschooled.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 02:35 PM


thank you for sharing your experience in australia. i’m fascinated.

one odd phrase that is tossed at me again and again is “shared experience of school” — the idea that if children don’t attend school, they won’t have this cultural shared knowledge with their peers when they are older. i argued long before i ever started homeschooling that there is no shared experience of school — there are too many varying experiences just within my state, let alone our large country, to make one generic story. my husband went to a huge school in a town outside of chicago and took university-like courses when he was a teenager. i went to a tiny rural school. his friend went to a private religious school in the city. among us, we had many shared experiences, but they weren’t of *school* itself — they were of *people*. people are the same everywhere. but that includes outside of school.

the idea of teachers being able to choose schools (rather than the reverse — especially since we’ve learned the reverse is seldom true) and then students being able to choose teachers and schools … well, that sets the entire system on its ear, doesn’t it? because right now, here, it is controlled top-down, and students are at the bottom. there is very little choice involved for students and families. if they have the money to pay for it, they might opt for private school. if there is an attractive charter or magnet school, they can enter a lottery, but buying a lottery ticket isn’t the same as making a choice. they still can’t choose.

homeschooling actually represents the most widely available educational choice in this country.

re: advantages/disadvantages to a teacher teaching the same students more than one year ..

in general, it’s seen as a great thing because the teachers get to really know their students and then continue to work with them, rather than getting to know them and then handing them off to someone else who doesn’t know them.

the negatives would be just as you said — if the student and teacher don’t have a good fit, it lasts longer. and five years in your school! that’s the entire primary experience. wow. however, having a teaching team with two or three teachers *should* improve chances for success.

re: not being able to learn from your mistakes by teaching a different grade each year .. two-year looping is the most common scenario here, i believe, which isn’t as extreme. but even five-year looping — the positive i see is that the teacher wouldn’t be bored, repeating the exact same material each year. s/he would have a much more challenging, varied teaching experience, which hopefully would make for a better teacher.

re: needing to be a qualified teacher in order to teach … oh, that’s a whole bucket of worms. ;^) i would say that the skills needed to work with a large group of students generally are learned on the job and/or innate talents rather than something learned at university. i think i am a good teacher and i don’t have a degree in education; it’s something that naturally comes easy for me, and i came to it after a lot of experience working with others and doing public speaking.

and while i agree with you that homeschooling parents *should* be more guide than traditional teacher, i also think that traditional teachers should be more guide than traditional teacher! ;^) and some hs’ing parents are more traditional in their approach, both with choosing curriculum and delivering it. there is an overlap — some public school teachers are great facilitators, too.

i agree with you that the students who learn the most and the easiest are the ones who are intensely interested and motivated, but i would take it further and say — *that is the teacher’s job* — to find the student’s interest and motivation and add it to the alchemy that is teaching/learning/co-learning/whatever you want to call it.

that is what i write about on this blog, helping uncover our children’s intense interests *so that they can be engaged learners*. this can be done in schools; i have done it in a school, others have done it. it just isn’t commonly done.

when i think about the best that i have seen personally in education, i think about a student who was *not* a typical A-student but who was on *fire* with the excitement of learning and therefore was driving himself to learn everything he needed to learn to get where he wanted to go. *that* is the bar that i set and think — why can’t more children have this experience at school? why can’t more schools provide it? why can’t more teachers teach in a way that makes it possible?

i know the potential, achieved with *new* teachers and hardly any money — and i wish every parent could see that, and then realize what their child is missing. that might bring about a sea change in how we educate our children.

“[S]chool is supposed to be boring, hard, humiliating, exempt of choice - seems to be a common attitude.”

i agree with this 100%; it is something i have heard over and over again — and to take it a bit further, they say that homeschooled children won’t have these *necessary* experiences. to which i say, bravo. i am not interested in my child having those experiences. this is like stockholm syndrome — we’ve become convinced that the bad things about school aren’t just unavoidable, they’re necessary!

“Wouldn't it be great if parents could score 'homework points' for doing something meaningful with their kids?” Wouldn’t it, though?!

thank you for your excellent comment!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 02:48 PM


re: whether you are the best teacher for your children … to me, the best teacher in the world is one who brings out something in the student, who teaches the student how to learn on his or her own, how to go on and be independent.

what is a great teacher these days? if teachers have to stick to a script, if they have to teach preparation for standardized tests …

since my goal is to have my children learn to teach themselves, *they* are the ones who need to be great teachers. and as it happens, they really do understand their student — implicitly!

re: most teachers not trusting children the way parents do — i would amend that to, most adults don’t trust children. including, unfortunately, parents. most ways of controlling other people imply a lack of trust, and even in homeschooling, most children are learning through a very traditional teacher-controlled process.

re: learning not being one-size-fits-all, i agree except that it is schools that aren’t equipped, not teachers. teachers are burdened with a whole classroom of students who fall all over the bell curve; they have to make compromises to move everyone along. it’s schools that group students by age rather than ability, who struggle with issues like inclusion, gifted programs, boys vs. girls, group learning, etc. parents have the much easier job of knowing exactly who their students are and planning the curriculum around them.

re: people saying they couldn’t homeschool because their children would never listen to them … oh my. but as you say, this requires a change in viewpoint — the parent is saying that they couldn’t *control* their children. they expect to “teach” in a way that requires some kind of authoritarian control. to homeschool the way *we* value requires listening to the children, but that’s not the way everyone thinks, unfortunately.

Comment by Mary on January 13, 2009 at 02:51 PM

So many great thoughts in the post and subsequent comments! Pretty much everything I wanted to say was already said by others.

Comment by Tiphaine on January 13, 2009 at 03:06 PM

I am french, currently living in Angola where my husband is working. Because we are not in Luanda, my children are home schooling (the angolan system is awfully low...).
What I read in your comments concerns only the teaching. The way that kids who are homeschooling are for sure getting things quickier, learning faster than kids who are in the "system".
The thought that I want to share is more about the social aspect that school brings in the children's life. School is a place where kids share between each other, learn to live together, learn to accept their differences. Even if the children have a social life outside of the school / home, things are not exactly the same. And I am still wondering if the choice we made will have good consequences the day they'll be able to go back to "school"...
At another level, my own, I wonder if having teaching the kids for so long will make me tolerant concerning the teachers' work and until what level I can be demanding to those same teachers.
I'll be very ifollowing that discussion with a lot of interest.

Comment by Dawn on January 13, 2009 at 04:20 PM

First of all thanks for all of the great thoughts on this topic. My thoughts last night were a little scattered but I was happy to see the addition of some very thoughtful comments this morning.

After some more thought on the issue I came to the conclusion that one must look at the motivation behind the creation of the school system.

Home education was once the norm...

I must ask myself "What is the end goal here? What kind of life do I want my children to create for themselves and how best can I help them acheive that possiblity?" I may not be the best teacher in the world... I know I am not... but I do have their best interests in mind with all the things I do...

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 05:04 PM


“School is a place where kids share between each other, learn to live together, learn to accept their differences. Even if the children have a social life outside of the school / home, things are not exactly the same.”

in my own personal experience at school (as a student), children did *not* accept each other’s differences. school was a place of teasing, bullying, rich vs. poor, etc.

when i owned my private school, i liked to believe that we worked together as a staff to prioritize making a good community and teaching children how to work together and collaborate, but that involved a very innovative curriculum and school structure.

i do think having a social life outside of school takes care of the important parts of socialization — dealing with other people, negotiating, collaborating, making friends, accepting differences, respecting others. these skills can be practiced and developed participating in scouts, 4H, dance and sports classes, art and music classes, co-ops, etc., as well as among friends and family.

your comment about homeschooling making you possibly more tolerant of teachers is a very interesting one … i *do* think most parents who homeschool really appreiciate the job that teachers have to do — with many more students and pressures. i do, anyway! the reason i chose homeschooling was because i wanted a very different kind of learning and daily life for my sons that school could offer.


Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 05:12 PM

dawn, i agree, and i would add … does it prepare kids for life in 2020?

Comment by Aimee on January 13, 2009 at 08:01 PM

So my biggest concern sometimes at being my kid's "teacher," is that I can feel overwelmed by the responsibility of my task. Especially right now, because of their ages(1 and 4), it feels up to me to make sure stuff happens, to make sure they get what they need, everyday, for the rest of my (or their) lives. (That it is an exaggeration.) It feels big! What I mean is, if they are going outside, it is because I take them outside, if they are going to hang out with friends, it is because I have arranged it with their friends' moms. I don't drop them off at school and know they are playing with other kids, drawing, painting, learning, etc and then pick them up for the rest of our day. Though it is exactly what I wanted: to be there, not miss stuff, to really live with my children and learn with them, sometimes it just feels like a daunting task. I think it is one reason why I love the project approach (or unschooling) because I want the kid's to own their education, to be self-directed, and to have confidence in their ability to explore and think, so though in ways it is "up to me," but really it is "up to them," or maybe even better, "up to us, parents and kids."

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 08:16 PM

think of it this way, aimee — imagine you had the responsibility for your two and another 20 kids at the same time. the truth is, schools and teachers have to balance concern for each student with concern for all students. at home, you don’t have to be on point every single moment, making every single minute count (see my post today about white space! ;^) — you have the luxury of enjoying a slower pace, taking things easier, letting things slide, and knowing that your children are still getting more individual attention than they would at school.

i can totally understand feeling overwhelmed (or at least whelmed ;^) with a 1- and 4-year-old, but remember … they just keep getting older. and your job gets easier and easier — especially when you are focused on a type of learning that encourage them to be in charge. my sons are the same age distance and i can tell you, it is so easy to parent them now and so much fun. it’s all good stuff ahead. :^)

you are absolutely right that you are entirely responsible for their lives and what happens and doesn’t happen to them daily — but parents who delegate that job to schools and extracurricular activities *are still responsible*. they may sigh with relief and hand their children over to someone else, but they are *still* responsible. the immediacy of having your children with you daily keeps that responsibility in the forefront of your mind and heart — which isn’t, really, a bad thing, right? :^)

Comment by Aimee on January 14, 2009 at 12:43 AM

"think of it this way, aimee — imagine you had the responsibility for your two and another 20 kids at the same time. the truth is, schools and teachers have to balance concern for each student with concern for all students. at home, you don’t have to be on point every single moment, making every single minute count (see my post today about white space! ;^)"
For me when I was teaching, my life was more compartmentalized, meaning that during the "school day," I taught, facilitated, helped with conflicts, etc for those hours and then the children went home and I caught up on documentation or met with my co-teachers to plan for future days, then I went home and had my home life. Now my "teaching day" is all day and never is quite over, until both are alseep and even that doesn't last long. It can feel relentless. Now don't get me wrong, I would not trade it for my pre-kid life or go back to teaching, with my kids in school, but it has a different rythmn that I am still getting used to, trying to find the quiet in the day or some down time for me during our week.
I know it will get easier as they get bigger, because I can already see the difference from last year with a newborn and a 3 year old, as I can also see the difference in myself as I grow as a homeschool parent.
What a great discussion, I love getting to toss ideas and thoughts around, especially the things that are in the forefront of my life.
Thanks Lori!!!

Comment by Lisa on January 14, 2009 at 01:22 AM

Even looping doesn't always help. The teacher may have been a "perfect fit" the first year in the cycle, but not so good in the next or later year(s). I think getting a bad or ineffective teacher can be mentally life-threatening any more! If you get one, say, teaching you to read or in any level of math, you can really be "sunk." Just as bad is a GREAT teacher who hates the newly imposed math, reading or [name a subject] program. My kids both had one teacher that I would happily have left them with for ALL of their school years. Each, individually, had one other great teacher a piece. Otherwise it was pretty much disaster-city--and that was in a so-called "award winning" school district. Those great teachers though new how to create a climate of trust and learning. They put a smile on and dealt with curriculum they hated but couldn't change. They kept the kids moving thru the boring test-prep months to have a week or so to do something worth while. My kids fondly remember them. In homeschool now I often ask my daughter how would "Mrs X" have gotten you to like this?? She laughs and explains. It's helpful! A big compliment was being told I explained something BETTER than Mrs. X had!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 14, 2009 at 03:31 AM

aimee, yes! and i’m sorry if it sounded like i was trying to argue with you, i promise i wasn’t. ;^) just trying to say that one, it does get *so* much easier as they get older and two, it really is okay if you’re not “on” all the time, kwim? :^)

thank you for your great comments; this has been a good discussion!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 14, 2009 at 03:34 AM

lisa, aw. :^) that is so great that your kids have good memories of a favorite teacher. and yes, ugh, i have a friend whose child had the *bad* teacher the year they learned to read, and it set him back for a long while .. it was particularly bad, i would say.

Comment by Mary on January 14, 2009 at 01:25 PM

Lori said "and yes, ugh, i have a friend whose child had the *bad* teacher the year they learned to read, and it set him back for a long while" and it reminded me of one of the reasons we decided to homeschool in the first place. My son spent his early, formative years in many different homes, all of them less than ideal circumstances and most of them in appalling circumstances. He was finishing second grade when he joined our family and was considerably "behind" in math and reading. I'm not sure how good or bad per se his teachers were for pre K through 1st grade, but none of them had the ability to work with or around or through the garbage that he was dealing with at the time. In second and third grade, I think he had teachers who did everything within their abilities to go back and have him learn the foundational things he missed earlier, but having to work with a full classroom, teaching to the tests as required by the school, and having a limited understanding of the circumstances he was in made it hard for him to work through that.

One of our primary reasons for deciding to homeschool was that we could focus the educational experience completely on where he was and move forward from there. Spending significant amounts of time with us helps him develop and heal emotionally in so many ways that are not possible when we only have a couple hours together each day. And he no longer needs to be embarrassed by being on a different timeline than many others his age.

I would say his second and third grade teachers would be considered at least good teachers by most people's standards, but I knew even the best teachers couldn't give him what he really needed because schools aren't designed for that.

Comment by Alice on January 14, 2009 at 02:37 PM

"Now my "teaching day" is all day and never is quite over, until both are alseep and even that doesn't last long."

That is pretty much life with a 2 year old and a 4 year old - not much down time. My second was born the year the first started pre-school so I have never had a day where I am completely on my own. Even when my husband takes the little one out, the older one wants some "mummy time" and always chooses to stay home.

I think a parent, who wants to delegate the responsability of learning, probably does 'take a break' when the kids are at school - I find myself going to the library and reading blogs like this, looking for inspiration for what to do when my daughter gets home.

Instead of waiting for down time, I found some things I could do, for me, while the children play/work. I can work on the computer while breastfeeding, can write at a coffee table, sitting on the floor, or I can hand piece quilt tops with all the equipment I need in a portable pencil case.

Your kids will soon be old enough to play at friends' houses without you and you will be able to take a well deserved break.


Comment by Lori Pickert on January 14, 2009 at 04:07 PM

mary, what a beautiful story; your son is so lucky to have you. :^)

and yes -- even good, even *great* teachers have to deal with all their other students, the school, the testing, the red tape, etc. etc. etc.

when i was running the private school, i would get all these questions re: our small classes + project-based curriculum .. "is this good for a gifted child?" "is this good for a child with extra needs?" and etc. and my answer was always .. pause .. i think this is good for *every* child -- what child doesn’t benefit from extra attention and a curriculum that focuses on building their learning skills? i feel the same way about homeschooling because, exactly as you say, it meets each child exactly where they are and then helps them move forward at their own pace. how is that not ideal, no matter what the circumstances?

Comment by Juliet Robinson on July 25, 2010 at 03:35 PM

So true, you can not replace a human. A great teacher is worth his/her weight in gold, they will help your child shine regardless of the environment!

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