Challenging Students Make Better Teachers?

medium_7088439As reported in the awesome Scientific American podcast “Sixty Second Science” recently, a research paper by several Boston-area medical researchers and Transportation Safety Administration trainers has found that baggage screeners who frequently come across contraband are less likely to miss it.

This is a simple idea, and a largely intuitive one, right? If your guard is up, you are more observant.  You become more lax when you have not seen what you are looking for in a long time.  I think about when, as a child, I sat by the window waiting for my dad to get home from work.  At first, I noticed every single car that came anywhere near the house, but after a few minutes my attention span was reached and I usually missed seeing him pull into the driveway.

I wondered when I listened to the podcast if the same concept applies to educators.  We are constantly “screening” for student mastery.  We are on alert for the needs of students throughout our day.  I considered the idea that teachers whose students don’t need them as actively all of the time might be less effective than those using their skills more continuously.  Could working with more challenging students actually keep a teacher’s skills more honed?

It’s a interesting thought experiment.  I know from experience that I was personally most able to employ those strategies that I used most often.  If I read a book or attended a training about a new technique, it was difficult to integrate into my practice until I used it regularly. If this was a widespread phenomenon, then the most highly skilled teachers would be the ones who work with the students who need the most help.

Sadly, I honestly believe that this might be the case, if not for the high teacher turnover and peripheral challenges of working in these environments.  Teachers who are constantly working their “teacher muscle” might become the most skilled among us… IF they had the support to stay in those situations and focus on their teaching practice.  Our low-income and inner-city schools–which now rank low in standardized test performance–could be training centers for high-quality teachers according to this model.  But, we would need to fundamentally change the way we fund and organize schools.

What do you think? Could the “baggage screener” effect make master teachers out of those in our most struggling schools?

photo credit: DogFromSPACE via photopin cc

One thought on “Challenging Students Make Better Teachers?

  1. I think one fundamental difference in that comparison might be that the bags either need the screener’s attention or don’t, whereas all students should be met at their ability and make progress learning from there. High-performing students don’t just move on a conveyor belt out of our lives as soon as it’s clear they’re high-performers. For this reason, I think teachers of all abilities need highly developed “teacher muscles”, although the challenges and behaviors they may face are of course frequently very different.

    However, I have often thought to myself that the more challenging my students are, the more important it is for me to be good at my job. Students that are more motivated to learn, for whatever reason, have more chance of success in life without my intervention. In other words, some may be easier (and more fun) to teach, but for them my job is not as crucial.


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