I must be a glutton for punishment, but I can’t ignore this article Cassandra linked to last night.
Go read the whole thing. Here is what jumped out at me.
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.
I have met these teachers. They exist in almost every school, public and private. What’s more… there existence isn’t a secret. Everyone knows who they are, and the parent grapevine is ripe with information. It is a common practice for the parent of a child entering 8th grade to offer advice to the parent of an incoming 7th grader. (BTW, this conversation happens at every grade level) And one of the first questions asked is: Who is their teacher?
The answer to that question releases a boatload of information. And while some of the information given may be faulty, one thing is clear. The consensus on who is a good teacher is practically unshakable, and many parents will fight tooth and nail to get their child into that teacher’s classroom.
What is taking place inside those classrooms that’s so different from neighboring classrooms? I don’t have a scientific answer to that question. I can only draw on my experience as a parent of a 10th grader and a 7th grader. I can tell you that my children have attend public and private schools and that exceptional teachers are found in both environments. And you have every right to question my qualifications on deciding who’s an exceptional teacher and who is not. Bear with me, and I’ll try and explain.
First, let me say, that when it comes to judging teachers, personality plays a very, very minor role. I have encountered great teachers who turn their classrooms into a stage and ones who are extremely traditional. In fact, when my son or daughter have complained about a teacher’s style (as kids always do) my response has been that they had better learn to handle different style types and personalities if they want to succeed in life.
Second, I’m not basing my assessment on test scores, although a teacher’s response to test scores does play a part in my formula. I’ll delve more into that later, but for now let’s just say that my child acing tests in a class does not equate to an exceptional teacher in my book.
So if I’m not judging on personality and test scores, then what am I judging on?
That answer lies with my children, who are a fount of information. And not all of it reliable, since a good deal of it is personality driven. They may like a teacher for a variety of reasons. They may like the teacher because their personalities mesh, or because the class is easy/difficult, or because the teacher is exceptional, or not. On the flip side, they may dislike a teacher for the exact same reasons.
Confusing? Sure it is, but keep listening to your kids and certain patterns begin to emerge. The first thing I tend to notice with my children is a desire to succeed in a specific classroom. In addition to hearing a certain teacher’s name more than other’s, I start hearing a lot about what’s taking place inside the classroom. This year, my 10th grade son talks practically non-stop about his AP Biology teacher and what they are learning. And it’s the combination of teacher and subject that caught my attention. This enthusiasm to discuss and share new knowledge is a good indicator, to me, that my son – who at 15 isn’t particularly chatty, and prefers to speak in grunts – is most likely being taught by an excellent teacher. There’s a sort of energy.
Granted, in the above scenario, everything came together to form a perfect environment for my son. So, in the name of fairness, let me give you another example.
My 7th grade daughter struggles with math, and this year has been her most daunting. She was put into the gifted program and the beginning of the year was full of tears when it came to math. (Note: My daughter takes her grades very seriously, perhaps too seriously, and up until this year was a straight A student. So a C average in math was the equivalent to the end of the world.) I knew her math teacher’s name, heard it in my sleep, by the end of the first week of school – and she wasn’t very complimentary. But in between all the I hate math and I don’t like Mr. X, etc., etc., another word emerged: Expects. As in, he expects me to learn this, he expects too much from me, and… he expects me to come to his afternoon tutoring class.
Hmmm… So I asked if the tutoring class was mandatory. To which she replied, no, but he (said with a sneer only a 12 year old can deliver) expects me to show up. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, her math teacher had contacted me. The conversation was amazing, mainly because he didn’t focus on what my daughter could do to improve. He wanted to know what he could do to help her improve. Geez, talk about a dog with a bone. This guy was persistent and unbelievably pro-active. Needless to say she attended tutoring classes, no longer sneers when she refers to him – which is still quite often – and, as I write this post, she is two points away from an A… and, most importantly, loves math.
Now, I realize my two examples are personal and not every kid in those classes may be having the same experience, but I did have a heads up. Which brings us back to the parent grapevine. I had already heard, from several parents, about how fantastic my son’s AP Bio teacher was before the first day of school. Likewise, last year the grapevine had warned me that his last year algebra teacher wasn’t so hot. That didn’t really concern me because my son is freakishly good at math. My bad. Six weeks into school last year and my son suddenly announces he hates math. Whoa! This resulted in my contacting the teacher, and let’s just say that that phone call bore no resemblance to the one I had with my daughter’s math teacher. In fact, I barely got a word in edgewise. When I finally did, here is what I said, “I’m sorry, do you think I’m accusing you of something?” Which only triggered another monologue about these kids. I hung up frustrated and sympathetic to my son. Not, that I shared my thoughts with my son. I instructed him to muddle through, explained that it was normal not to get along with everyone, and I still expected him to do well in the class – which he did, but, even after a year, he still announces how much he hates algebra, a class he aced by the way. But, in the end, that didn’t matter. What mattered to my son was what went on inside the classroom.
Does this mean my son’s algebra teacher wasn’t exceptional. Not necessarily, but there’s no denying that a consensus has formed about this teacher, and I know that if someone asked me about him I’d groan and relate my experience – which may or may not be fair.
I guess what I’m saying is that there are a lot of indicators out there into what makes an excellent teacher, and while we, as a group of teachers, parents and children, might not know the formula for creating an exceptional teacher, we, as a group of teachers, parents and children, do know who is exceptional. They simply stand out, and it’s in our interest to find out what makes them tick.
Obligatory disclaimer on this topic: I am not attacking teachers. I am not saying that Teach for America teachers are better or worse than other teachers. I am not advocating for any thing other than educating children. And I’d really like the comments in this thread to focus on improving education rather than on finger pointing and educational politics.