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

One thought on “What Makes a Great Teacher?

  1. I didn’t time to read the entire article until just now. The patterns Ripley discusses are certainly not new to me–especially when it comes to reevaluating lessons.
    Every time I teach a lesson, whether for practice lessons at school, student teaching, or my recent long-term teaching, I tend to spend hours thinking about ways I could beef that lesson up–or break it down–to make it work better in the future. It’s really easy to think, “Maybe if my students were SMARTER, this would come to them faster,” and also, “perhaps if their PARENTS cared more, they would take their studies more seriously.” It takes a good teacher to instead wonder, “What can I change about MY TEACHING?”
    I’m still really new to teaching, and though I would LOVE the opportunity to finally have my own classroom, I like that substituting allows me to see what other teachers are doing. This article also appealed me to because it said that success was higher when the teacher MAJORED in their subject. I get annoyed when people who were not English teachers take the English Praxis just to add a certification to their resume. I worked hard to get certified in an area I love and love to teach, and you can bet I won’t try to pretend I can teach history or math just because some test says I can. Nice article!

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