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Who was your best teacher and why?

February 24, 2012

Good Teachers are Learners and Leaders

What qualities do good teachers possess?  Can we settle on a set of qualities that all teachers should possess and can they be taught?  There are a plethora of articles, commentaries, and books written on what goes into making a good teacher.  I would advocate that contained in these pieces are the framework for what good teaching looks like.  Here are some of my favorite ones:

Atlantic Magazine article by Amanda Ripley, What Makes a Great Teacher?

In Ms. Ripley’s article, she writes and profiles four types of teachers who are successful at what they do: (1) motivator; (2) the tour guide; (3) the manager; and (4) the connector.  While I think these four profiles, many of which come from looking at Teacher for America, fit some of the qualities of what a great teacher embodies, they do miss the quality of inspiration that great teachers possess.

In the beginning of the article, Ms. Ripley compares and contrasts the teachers of two boys entering 5th grade math.  One boy goes to a school where his math teacher is able to help him improve his performance on the high-stakes test, while the other boy goes to a school where the teacher is unable to accomplish the same goal.  She asks the question, “which is the better teacher?”

She profiles some Teach for America (TFA) candidates and writes about what TFA has learned about good teaching.  Here is what she discovers:

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common:

(1) they avidly recruited students and their families into the process;

(2) they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning;

(3) they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and

(4) they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Ripley points out that good teaching is not magical or mysterious.  The skills or routines that one needs to be a good teacher can be learned.  Telling the story of Ms. Taylor’s math class in Washington, DC, she quotes a book written by Steven Farr, Teaching as Leadership:

“We see routines so strong that they run virtually without any involvement from the teacher. In fact, for many highly effective teachers, the measure of a well-executed routine is that it continues in the teacher’s absence.”

While I agree with her, my concern about her article is that she focuses more on techniques which can be taught and less on those qualities that are more inherent and intuitive.  Good teachers must have the ability to inspire their students to learn.  This doesn’t come with being a master of routines.  I think she misses that point in her piece.

New York Times article by Melissa Kramer and Samantha Birns, What Makes a Good Teacher?  Ask a student.

In their article, they went out amongst students at Edward R. Murrow High School and asked the question, “what defines a good teacher?”  They also asked students to reflect on a teacher they find interesting and why?  Here is what they report one student said about Mr. Ragovin:

“He doesn’t follow the typical teaching structure,” said Dareen Generoso, a student.  “It’s more interesting. His lessons are more realistic. During most lessons, we discuss personal goals and analyze ourselves.”

Other students identified that good teachers make a class relevant and interesting and use a sense their sense of humor to motivate them to do well in class.  Every teacher should strive to make their class relevant and interesting to students, but not every teacher has an engaging sense of humor.  What I learned from this piece is that a good teacher uses their toolbox to “motivate students to do well in class.”  Good teachers pull out all the tricks and techniques to pull the students into the stories they tell and the content they teach.

The Guardian, Teacher Network Blog, What Makes a Brilliant Teacher?

In this article, Adam Lopez writes about the “T Factor.”  Do brilliant teachers write good lesson plans, employ good instructional strategies to reach students, assess students in interesting and meaningful ways, pull into the classroom resources that aid learning, and manage classrooms well?  Of course, the answer to all parts of that question are Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes.  However, can you possess all those qualities and still not be a brilliant teacher?  Mr. Lopez would say the answer is Yes because brilliant teachers need to possess the T Factor.  Here is how Mr. Lopez defines the T Factor:

In my experience, teachers with the T Factor, run a happy, high achieving environment in which the pupils feel content, valued and achieve high respective standards academically and behaviorally. These teachers create a sense of awe and wonder to develop inquiring minds with an insatiable thirst for learning that endures.

Put another way, brilliant teachers are capable of building and maintaining high-quality relationships with all their students, regardless of their level of achievement.  These teachers don’t play favorites based on how well a student performs or how well a student behaves.  The Religious Society of Friends uses a metaphor of an “inner light in everyone” or God’s presence in everyone.  Brilliant teachers recognize and are able to tap into the inner light in every student.  Mr. Lopez identifies emotional intelligence and empathy as two important qualities that brilliant teachers possess and that make up the T Factor.

Mr. Lopez has compiled a list of tips for building empathetic interactions with students.  (click here for his five tips)

The Elements of Effective Teaching, a JSD article by Joellen Killion and Stephanie Hirsh

In their article, they describe a model for effective teaching that includes three domains in which an effective teacher must excel.  The diagram illustrates these domains:

Three Domains Effective Teachers Must Master

They lay out a framework for effective teaching that is based on the seven core attributes that Learning Forward has spelled out in their Standards for Professional Learning.  These attributes, embodied in the three domains, are:

  • operating within a learning community
  • engaging in leadership in the classroom and beyond
  • effective use of resources
  • effective use of data
  • awareness of theories, research and models of human learning
  • implementation of strategies for continuous growth and change
  • aligning practice and professional growth with improved student outcomes

What Makes for a Good Science Teacher, an article in Hechinger Report by Susan Sawyer

In her article, she writes about a professor who was confronted with the choice between two teachers to fill a position.  One was a person with deep content knowledge and a Ph.D. in the discipline, while the other had a Master’s degree in a related topic but possessed a strong passion for teaching and students.  Which teacher will be more successful reaching his or her students?  She quotes Martin Storksdieck, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council.

As a teacher, “you need to know the subject.”  However, “independent of content knowledge, the teacher has to have the ability to make connections and excite students,” he said. “Can the teacher go deeper, be flexible and explain why something is important? This is the human part, often overlooked. And accurately measuring success is a science in itself.”

Effective teachers develop strategies to help students learn by doing because they understand that students are more engaged and the learning is more enduring when they are involved in a multi-sensory learning environment.  Ms. Sawyer quotes one student who says this about her favorite teacher.

Instead of sitting listening and Miller credits her high school physics teacher, Ms. Reardon, with igniting her passion for the subject. “Ms. Reardon introduced me to physics for the first time in a fun way. She gave us labs to help us better understand the material and get more involved,” said Miller.

The department chair ended up deciding on the teacher with the Master’s degree and a passion for teaching students.

Good Teaching: A Matter of Living the Mystery, an article by Parker Palmer in a publication, Change

Parker Palmer, the author of one of the best books on what it means to be a good teacher, The Courage to Teach, wrote this article that summarizes his thinking on the qualities of good teacher.  He writes:

Good teaching is an act of generosity, a whim of the wanton muse, a craft that may grow with practice, and always risky business. It is, to speak plainly, a maddening mystery. How can I explain the wild variety of teachers who have incited me to learn-from one whose lectures were tropical downpours that drowned out most other comments, to one who created an arid silence by walking into class and asking, “Any questions?”

From Palmer’s perspective, good teaching is not about technique.  He writes that good teaching comes from the teacher’s integrity and from the teacher’s ability to relate to the subject, students, and the world.  In the sense that good teaching is not about technique, Palmer points out that an approach that lights the fire underneath one student may extinguish the learning for another.  So for a teacher to be brilliant, he or she has to connect in meaningful ways with students.  What Palmer advocates is in alignment with Lopez’s T Factor.  The emotional intelligence and empathy of a teacher helps him or her connect to students, connect the subject to students, and connect students to the subject.

This image that Palmer paints about good teaching is powerful, particularly as he relates teaching  to “knowing.”  Knowing is typically thought about in relation to students learning the content.  But Palmer writes:

More engaging ways of teaching will take root only when we explore more engaged images of knowing–especially of objective knowing.

While he appreciates the need to “cover the field” as he calls it, he is clear about advocating a form of teaching that draws students “inside the subject as participants and co-creators of knowledge.”

Palmer also writes about the need for teachers to show their students how the ideas we are passionate about related to our lives.  In this way, he makes the connection that brilliant teachers can connect the learning to the world in which the student and teacher live.  Good teaching is not merely about learning a set of content.  Parker Palmer’s essay on good teaching is full of rich ideas or a blueprint from which a teacher could act out his or her practice.

Finally, Parker Palmer talks about the challenge of good teachers facing the “fear of teaching.”  Facing the fear openly and honestly allows teachers to open themselves up to what it means to become a great teacher.  He makes the connection between teaching and leading.  Good teachers can lead students to learning deeply about themselves as learners.

In an article that Sandra Curtis and I wrote for the Westminster Magazine entitled, The Art and Practice of a Good Teacher, we interviewed teachers and students about the qualities of good teachers.  Here are the conclusions we drew from our work:

  • Good teachers possess a strong capacity to connect with their students.
  • Good teachers, like every good parent, try to help students navigate a delicate balance between independence and discipline
  • Good teachers plan experiences that engage students, convincing them that the material is worth studying and requires strong discipline.
  • Good teachers’ personality and integrity rise above other attributes.
  • Good teachers establish trust because they know that it is an important component of building successful relationships with students.

After looking at my six articles in which the authors share a vision for what good teaching looks like, feel free to share your’s.  You probably have six that are different from mine.  Who was your best teacher and why?  Share a story.

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