Parents, Do You Want Your Child To Be Happy Or Literate? Many Educators Say You’re Just Going To Have To Choose

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 of 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 6 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. 

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


  1. I am so grateful to Allah(swt) for having met your Ummi. I couldn’t begin to imagine how profoundly important your entire family would be to the African American,Muslim and general community.


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