What Makes a Great Teacher?

Gripping story of an effort to use data to predict teaching excellence.

As Teach for America began to identify exceptional teachers using
this data, Farr began to watch them. He observed their classes, read
their lesson plans, and talked to them about their teaching methods and
beliefs. He and his colleagues surveyed Teach for America teachers at
least four times a year to find out what they were doing and what kinds
of training had helped them the most.

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.

But when Farr took his findings to teachers, they wanted more.
“They’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah. Give me the concrete actions. What does this
mean for a lesson plan?'” So Farr and his colleagues made lists of
specific teacher actions that fell under the high-level principles they
had identified. For example, one way that great teachers ensure that
kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding: Are the
kids–all of the kids–following what you are saying? Asking “Does
anyone have any questions?” does not work, and it’s a classic rookie
mistake. —Amanda Ripley, The Atlantic