Parents, Do You Want Your Child to Be Happy or Literate?

Dec 12, 2022 9:31:48 AM


If you want to understand how education research can miss the forest for the trees, look no further than a recent report from a University of Maryland/Harvard University research team that found that teachers largely either had to focus on teaching that made students smarter or teaching that made kids happier. 

The study, a white paper which was released earlier this year, looked at the teaching of 53 elementary school math teachers.  The teachers’ students were surveyed about their feelings toward the instruction and their teachers.  

Like a customer service satisfaction survey, they were asked to rate their teachers on a range of statements including: “Because of this teacher, I’m learning to love math;” “This math class is a happy place for me;” “Being in this math class makes me feel sad or angry;” and others.

The researchers found that just six of the 53 teachers got both good achievement and good happiness marks from students. The study dubbed these teachers “doubly good.” I think we should be doubly clear that “doubly good” means that just 10 percent of teachers are what most people would call highly effective. 

And while stalwarts like Karen Pittman have done a thoughtful job of helping us understand what all of this could mean about how teachers “balance” the happiness and achievement of their students, I think looking too closely risks us missing a larger truth: Good teaching is ultimately premised on and inclusive of cultural competence. That is to say that how students experience teacher leadership, the relational nature of the work of teaching is the thread between engagement and achievement.  Without it, student learning and teacher success suffers.

The challenge, then, is for us to build the cultural competence of all teachers for all learners.  Unfortunately, the lion’s share of our teacher preparation programs are doing a woefully inadequate job of that, with large majorities of new teachers reporting that they feel unprepared to teach students of different backgrounds. 

As a consequence, our understanding of effective teaching is warped, we fail to understand that teaching is a fundamentally relational phenomenon. Students who trust teachers, believe teachers will support and understand them are consequently more ready to learn, open to trying new and hard things, persevering, persisting, taking risks in front of their peers, failing, falling, getting up and trying again.

As a former principal I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to teachers across the country early in the school year and heard something about, “We’re not teaching the next couple of weeks, we’re focused on building relationships.” 

Our flawed understanding causes us to then divide the ability of teachers to relate, connect with, understand their students (cultural competence) from the ability of teachers to get higher achievement. This is because precious few have the ability to connect with their students in meaningful ways in the first place. 

It allows us to blame kids or argue we shouldn’t be assessing them or blame societal ills beyond the reach of our school buildings rather than scaffold the specific supports our current and aspiring teachers need in order to make those essential connections that are good teaching.

Effective, coherent , student-centered systems, rich, robust, rigorous content and cultural proficiency are the magic ingredients of high-quality learning.  Too often we have inadequacies or incompetencies at each one of those levels. 

None of our systems are aligned for cultural proficiency and creating the kinds of learning opportunities our students need to both be successful academically and feel connected with and supported by their teacher as people. The irony that, despite these facts, nearly all state and district evaluation data shows as many as 90 percent or more teachers as effective, shouldn’t be lost on us.

We see what is possible with greater cultural competency in teaching, what is possible when students and teachers are connected in a supporting and trusting way.  From strengthening a student’s racial and ethnic identity and promoting a sense of belonging to improving critical thinking skills and strengthening reading and math understanding, culturally competent teaching makes big differences for students.

And so in the end, good teaching doesn’t have to be the false dichotomy between teaching for learning and teaching for student happiness that we perceive it to be. But so long as we treat it as binary, our systems will produce outcomes that make it so.

It’s our choice, but we need to be cognizant of the fact that whatever choice we make has real consequences for our students. 

This essay originally appeared on Philly’s 7th Ward.


Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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