Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Credo for Success (for Teachers and Teacher Educators)

My father, Walter Senkowski, was a very successful business executive who, like many of today's corporate-minded school reformers believed in results.  The results he was after were profits in the heavy construction equipment business and he had faith in his own ability to generate profits for his shareholders, so much so that he tied his own compensation almost completely to the profitability of his company and he encouraged his sales force to think about compensation in the same way.  But he never tried to tie the compensation of his union member service workers to individual performance because he understood that this kind of direct tie to work outputs just couldn't be made with any integrity.  And also important, he always knew that taking care of his employees, financially and personally, was critical to the bottom line with respect to profits and reputation.

I've been thinking about my father as I've been pondering selection criteria (with particular reference to "dispositions") for those entering the teaching profession.  Throughout a career in management and in motivational speaking, Dad articulated what he called a "Credo for Success,"  and these were the dispositions that could get you there:

  • A true sense of urgency
  • A demand for excellence in yourself and others
  • A compelling curiosity to know the things you don't yet understand
  • A driving desire to do the best you know how TODAY
  • A healthy disregard for the way things have been done in the past
My dad expected this of himself and of his employees (and, unquestionably, of his children!) no matter how they were compensated -- and he coached all of us toward this expectation in part by modeling what it looked like and in part by creating the conditions in which these dispositions could be enacted.

I'm not sure that most paths to the teaching profession are marked by these commitments and expectations, by this sense of energy at work, and I suggest that they should be.   One that does captures this tone is Teach for America, the organization that asks its novices to set big goals, invest in kids and families, plan purposefully, execute effectively, continuously increase effectiveness and work relentlessly.   I quite like this about TFA, but I have one biggish caution.  My relentlessly working father (who passed that trait on to his daughter) was careful to teach his employees how to do what needed to be done intelligently (he always reminded me that he was as much a teacher as I was) even as he was asking them to do what they did better.  In university-based (and research-based) teacher education, we are teaching candidates to work better and smarter but, I fear, without a "true sense of urgency" or even "a compelling curiously."  In Teach For America, we are tapping the "demand for excellence" already woven into the character of the candidates selected, but neglecting the coaching and the context-creation that makes the most of the energy generated.

There is a great deal of talk about how effective some TFA teachers are and I don't dispute that.  It's a testimony to what big talent, enormous energy and the habit of holding yourself to high expectations can accomplish.   But imagine how much better they might be if they actually knew what they were doing ... and imagine how much more effective even modestly talented well-prepared teachers might be if they could marshal a sense of urgency, a compelling curiosity, a demand for excellence, a desire to do their best (whatever that is), and especially, a healthy disregard for the way things have been done in the past.  This, as much as teaching high leverage practices and encouraging reflection, is central to the project of teacher education.