What Teachers Can AND Cannot Do

On Monday evening, immediately after giving a brief presentation to my school’s Board, I read a post on my friend’s blog.  Both the presentation and the blog post starting me thinking about the strengths and limitations of teachers.  What can teachers do for any given student, and what can’t they do for that same student?

Sometimes we hear that teachers are the most important factor in determining how much a student achieves, but there is a caveat to this statement that often goes ignored.  Teachers are the most important in-school factor, but there are many out-of-school factors that play an even larger role in a child’s academic achievement.  Most studies suggest that in-school factors account for roughly 30-35% of a student’s level of academic achievement, while out-of-school factors make up the other 65-70%.  Out-of-school factors include things like family dynamics, home environment, socioeconomic status, etc. Out-of-school factors also include things like how much print material is in the home, whether the student sees his or her parents reading, and whether or not the parents talk about and share books with their children.  So as my friend wrote in her latest post, “At least part of the grade for each student on my recent test  is a reflection of a student’s reading ability.  That measurement is an assessment of their entire reading lives, not just the last four weeks of what has been learned in my classroom about this particular piece of literature.” That bit about “their entire reading lives” is important because she means both what the students encountered in all previous classrooms as well as outside school.

Now, let’s talk about that 30% because I’m a big proponent of maximizing that 30% to the utmost.  I can’t do much, if anything, about the out-of-school factors; that 70% is out of my hands.  Having said that, I can do a lot with that 30%!  Of all in-school factors that affect a student’s achievement, teachers are the most important factor of all.  In some studies, students with high-performing teachers performed 2 to 3 times better than students with low-performing teachers.*  Pretty remarkable when you consider that teachers educate dozens upon dozens of students year after year.  Think of the overall difference between 2 students at the end of 13 years of schooling if one student always had average to high-performing teachers and the other did not.

There’s this constant attempt to balance these two statistics in my mind. On my good days, I think only of maximizing that 30%.  On a bad day, those out-of-school factors loom much larger.  Some days, I place all the blame on my own two shoulders if my students don’t perform as well on an assignment as I would have liked.  (My students can tell you how annoyed I get…not with them, but with myself when I think I’ve messed up.  One of them did a fair imitation of me in this mode just last week!)  Other days, I get frustrated partly with them and partly with that 70% that I can’t control. That 70% sometimes feels like it’s dictating everything I can and can’t do for my students even though I know this isn’t true.

The trick for every teacher, I think, is to figure out how to keep these two statistics in balance, and that brings to mind the following:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

*If you are interested in more of this kind of research, check out Eric A. Hanushek’s research out of Stanford.

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