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Author Topic: What Makes a Great Teacher?
Member # 1881

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Some really cool stuff from Teach For America.

The bad news is that we still don't have very many objective measures of teacher characteristics that matter when recruiting new teachers.


Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Once teachers have been in the classroom for a year or two, who is very good—and very bad—becomes much clearer. But teachers are almost never dismissed. Principals almost never give teachers poor performance evaluations—even when they know the teachers are failing.

Ideally, schools would hire better teachers to begin with. But this is notoriously difficult. How do you screen for a relentless mind-set?

Definitely worth reading the entire article.
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Member # 6454

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Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.
I think this is absolutely true, but I think the reason is important: A teacher is going to be good as long as the teacher cares about what happens to his students. As long as the teacher cares, he's going to work to benefit the student. That manifests itself in a variety of ways, one of which is constantly reevaluating classroom techniques.
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Thinking back to the best teachers I had in high school, the commonality that jumps out to me is that they knew their subjects better than any other teachers I had. Not that they had some amazing Ph.D. level understanding or anything (that I'm aware of), but they could handle, with ease, any reasonable question that a bright high school student could ask that was on topic, and they generally didn't brush off such questions with "there's no time to get into that." (Though, certainly they sometimes had to invite the student to stick around for a few minutes after class.) The less effective teachers gave the impression that they had studied and learned what they were teaching, but not a whole lot more. Which leads me to my next point:

The best teachers were also the ones that seemed to enjoy their subject. The fact that the teacher enjoys the subject is contagious. Its the only rational explanation for why I took Art History my senior year: I had previously taken European History from the same teacher, and knew that she liked the subject, so it must be interesting. Sure, we made fun of much of the art work, like the obnoxious teenagers that we were, but I did well in the class. (As a math and science guy, I'm not your typical art history sort of guy.) (Oh, I just remembered the other reason I took Art History: it filled my art credit without forcing me to take an actual art class where I would have to draw or sculpt something. I'm terrible at that.)

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We need to be very careful with this question not to confuse popularity with competance. I could tell you for sure who the most popular teacher was in my high school, but I'm not 100% sure that he was the best teacher (although I think that may have been the case too).

I don't actually think knowledge has much to do with anything. I had some bad teachers, but they weren't bad because they didn't know the material (although some of them probably didn't know it as well as others). Very little real book knowledge is actually required to teach most classes, outside some of the hard sciences. That said, lots of knowledge on a topic does generally indicate a genuine interest in the topic, which does create a correlation between knowledge and competance.

To me a good teacher cares about the material, and has enough personal charisma to make the students care about the material too. If you have those two characteristics, you're pretty much 50% of the way to being great.

The other 50% is how well you communicate and organize ideas. Some teachers, even the ones who care about the material and make the material interesting to you, are just terrible at organizing the information in a way that is conducive to understanding it well enough to pass a test. Teachers have to be methodical in their lectures. They have to break information down for you in a clear narrative that students can process. The ADD teachers, the ones who jump from one idea to the other, even the ones who are exciting and charismatic, are very difficult to learn from. I had a few of this latter type in law school.

[ December 03, 2010, 08:09 AM: Message edited by: jasonr ]

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