CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Much has been written and said about what's wrong with American public education. We've heard about higher salaries and more accountability for teachers, enhanced information technology, changes in education training, and greater local school autonomy. Many of these recommendations and others were mentioned in the state's recent education audit and are generally structural changes enabled by legislation, regulation or just more money.
These are all vitally important, but I'm still convinced that the secret to education is simply the chemistry in the classroom between the teacher and each individual student. Support and resources help, but I believe that a master teacher can create magic in any surrounding. I'm also convinced that much of that magic is related to factors outside the control of policymakers.
Are great teachers made or are they born? It's hard for me to accept that there aren't innate personal characteristics that make it easier for someone to connect with young people. Unbridled enthusiasm and the ability to make each student think he or she is the most important person in the classroom are qualities that are extremely difficult to teach.
Rookie teachers can be fine-tuned, redirected, or can gain maturity, but sometimes it's just that sparkle in the eye or that tone of voice that inspires. Students know when their teacher truly cares about them and are much more likely to perform academically and develop a love of learning in response to such nurturing.
Perhaps, the next step is for our public education hierarchy to take heed of what is happening in medical education. Specifically, certain personality traits have recently been recognized as critical for physicians of the future. In response, a number of medical schools over the last year have begun using a process called the Multiple Mini Interview (MMI), which creatively evaluates those applying to their schools for these interpersonal skills, including their willingness to work collaboratively in a team.
Although the science isn't finalized and there may be some changes in process as this evolves, many medical educators have felt compelled to act. Additionally, it was recently reported that the Medical College Admission Test will be redesigned to include a new section on behavioral and social sciences, yet another example of the realization that these innate qualities need to be formally encouraged. In short, there is the strong suggestion that such an overall change in selection philosophy will, over time, change the culture of medicine to make it more likely that patients will be better partners in the maintenance of their own health.
Couldn't a similar approach be used to recruit and select new teachers? Some of the virtues that have been suggested for quality teachers are high-level leadership and communication capabilities, sincere caring for the welfare of young people, passion for teaching, and a sense of humor. Just as with medical education, there is no formal research clarifying these beliefs, but with something as important as high-performance K-12 teaching, shouldn't we take the same intuitive leap and explore ways to both seek out and encourage individuals with these special gifts to consider the profession of teaching?
There is no doubt that curricular enhancements in teacher education, mentoring, high tech facilities, societal respect and professional development play a major role in teacher performance -- but, all things being equal, if a potential teacher has the desirable social attributes, making a difference in a child's life should be much more likely. Character may not be a silver bullet, but it's an important piece of the puzzle for a challenge that is critical to America's future. If we can put a man on the moon, it shouldn't be that hard to devise a workable mechanism to find and then recruit those who, because of their compassion and empathy, have a high chance of becoming outstanding teachers.
Whether it is reforming aptitude tests for college entry and teaching certification, remaking the interview process for education schools, or some other as yet-undetermined strategy, there is no reason to delay getting started. So, just as we may be able to improve the practice of medicine in this country by identifying those with the "right stuff," we just might be able to do something equally rewarding for our education system.
Foster is a Charleston physician and state senator.