Exceptional Teachers

Filed in Delaware, National by on January 7, 2010

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.

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A stay-at-home mom with an obsession for National politics.

Comments (34)

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  1. anon says:

    I can tell this was heartfelt and well thought out so let me be the first to say this is a fantastic essay that every teacher and parent should read.

  2. Jeremy Filliben says:

    Pandora,

    You are right on the money. As parents, my wife and I are constantly looking for the right teacher to request at the next grade level. Even a single sub-par teacher for a year can really set a student back, so it is imperative for parents to get involved.

    Jeremy

  3. cassandra_m says:

    What the Teach for America experience seems to at the point of actually documenting is that subject matter expertise and some prescribed credentials is not enough. This is what jumped out at me:

    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.

    Does this look familiar to anyone? These are almost the skill set of successful entrepreneurs. I don’t want to make a huge deal out of that, but people who are pouring in focused effort and thinking and focused more effort and rethinking on developing their kids (rather than a product) seem to have the greater success.

    I’m really interested to see more of Teach for America’s data on teacher effectiveness. Because if you have a better idea of what the genie in the bottle looks like, you can do the work to get more of that.

  4. pandora says:

    You’re right, Cassandra. It is an entrepreneurial approach especially the idea of shaking things up and trying something new. 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.’

    And thanks for dropping in, Jeremy – as part of the parent grapevine! :-)

  5. anon says:

    TFA seems to have a self-selection bias for idealism. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but if you want to extend that idealism to all teachers, I don’t see how the TFA model scales up. It seems like one of those things, like charter schools, that functions best as a small-scale laboratory and incubator.

  6. Herb says:

    Why is a child who struggles at math in the gifted program?

  7. anon says:

    Because she’s winning the struggle?

    Truthfully though, there is not always a bright line between “gifted” and regular honors students. There is a lot of mislabeling.

  8. pandora says:

    There are struggles, and then there are struggles, Herb. And my daughter has become very comfortable in acing tests in all her subjects. She has always preferred writing and essays to math, mainly because it didn’t come as easily to her.

    As a parent, I am thrilled she struggled, simply because by working through her problems she attained a valuable life skill – perseverance. Guess I could have moved her down a level to make it easier and guarantee her an easy A, but that felt like cheating her.

    And while those As may mean a lot to her, they don’t count much to me if she’s not challenged.

    Perhaps, that answers your question?

  9. john says:

    Things are not always as they appear:

    “TFA’s fancy candidate selection process gets a big sloppy wet kiss from writer Amanda Ripley in the new issue of The Atlantic (What Makes a Great Teacher?). TFA gave Ripley “unprecedented” access; in return she gave them a national magazine feature story devoid of critical or even outside voices. So busy describing things and gushing about the counterintuitive results, Ripley never explains why we should care about a relatively small teacher preparation program whose circumstances are so different from most other teacher prep programs (and whose participants don’t even stay in classrooms very long).” – Alexander Russo

    http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2010/01/media-access-ruins-atlantic-tfa-story.html

  10. pandora says:

    Oh, and thanks, anon.

    And I agree with the mislabeling, and believe it is no guarantee of future success – sometimes it can actually hurt. We work on keeping both our children’s feet firmly planted on the ground.

  11. Mark H says:

    “Why is a child who struggles at math in the gifted program?”

    So only math geniuses at age 14 are allowed in the gifted program? I’m a math wizard and computer geek (and quite good at both) but I could never remember the periodic table in Chemistry (and if it wasn’t for spell-check I’d be lost). People excel at different things. And perhaps she wasn’t as much struggling at math but didn’t have the right teacher as she’s doing much better now

  12. anon says:

    There is a lot of mislabeling.

    Actually, that was not well said. What I meant was just that the line is sometimes arbitrary, and inclusion into either program can also be arbitrary (and sometimes political or opinion-based). At least that is my experience.

    It is nice to be named as gifted, but I don’t have much personal evidence of the benefits of TAG programs.

  13. john says:

    could TFA be in damage control mode?

    “Teach for America, a corps of recent college graduates who sign up to teach in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, has become a campus phenomenon, drawing huge numbers of applicants willing to commit two years of their lives.
    But a new study has found that their dedication to improving society at large does not necessarily extend beyond their Teach for America service.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/education/04teach.html

  14. pandora says:

    But John, if you read the article, they spend a good bit of time discussing Mr. Taylor, who is not part of TFA, and getting great results. And I really don’t want to get into this TFA debate – I tried to be clear on that.

    I’m looking for what works.

  15. cassandra_m says:

    What is really useful — and what is highlighted in the Atlantic article — is apparently 20 years of data on what makes a good teacher that Teach for America apparently has. Overestimating youthful activism seems to be the hallmark of every generation who has aged out of their youthful activism phase.

  16. Mark H says:

    “Overestimating youthful activism”
    Yep, that’s why I’m so cynical now :)

  17. cassandra_m says:

    That TFA has good and bad teachers is a banal point and nowhere near the subject of the Atlantic article or Pandora’s discussion.

  18. john says:

    I am not looking for a TFA debate either. The point is that the article MAY contain bias. The results discussed are often anecdotal and the scale of progress by extrapolting the story would be tranformational. Unfortunately, this is not the case in D.C.

    Mr. Taylor indeed appears to be an exceptional teacher!

  19. john says:

    I know you are attached to the article but it does promulgate a political agenda (Race to the Top) that largely has zero social science backup. In the article: “But if school systems hired, trained, and rewarded teachers according to the principles Teach for America has identified, then teachers would not need to work so hard. They would be operating in a system designed in a radically different way—designed, that is, for success.”

    If this were the silver bullet, it would be brought to scale. The program is 17 years old…..

  20. cassandra_m says:

    Yes, this article contains multiple anecdotes, but this article is supposed to be a tease for this:

    Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools, began outside the educational establishment and has largely remained there. For years, it has been whittling away at its own assumptions, testing its hypotheses, and refining its hiring and training. Over time, it has built an unusual laboratory: almost half a million American children are being taught by Teach for America teachers this year, and the organization tracks test-score data, linked to each teacher, for 85 percent to 90 percent of those kids. Almost all of those students are poor and African American or Latino. And Teach for America keeps an unusual amount of data about its 7,300 teachers—a pool almost twice the size of the D.C. system’s teacher corps.

    Farr is apparently releasing a book looking at this data shortly and this article is a preview of that.

  21. john says:

    Pandora,

    I couldn’t agree more with your thesis that we need to find out what makes them tick and seek to replicate them!

  22. Herb says:

    Perseverance is an important thing to learn, and a wonderful trait to instill in a child, but I’m not sure an accelerated learning program is the place to hash all that out. I, for one, am thankful my Gifted and Talented Program wasn’t slowed down by “hard workers.”

  23. cassandra_m says:

    The “political agenda” is largely a description of the Race to the Top program and how Duncan lucked into its funding. The program’s focus on improving teacher quality is pretty well known — it isn’t as though this author is advocating or critiquing this program.

    And as for the zero social science backup — see my previous post. But there are lots of things that social science says are good for us that don’t get “brought to scale”.

  24. pandora says:

    I have a hard time finding an education article that doesn’t promulgate a political agenda – which is probably the biggest problem with our education system.

    I am not a teacher. I am not a TFA teacher. I have no horse in this race…

    Wait a minute, actually I have 2 horses on the front lines of this race. Two horses I have to make sure receive an excellent education so they can move out!

    And while I openly admit the article is biased, I refuse to throw out what I consider good ideas (and 20 years of data) simply because of a slant to one side.

  25. Brooke says:

    Good teachers rock. Thank goodness they so often exist, in spite of disincentives society-wide. :)

  26. john says:

    Cassandra says: ” it isn’t as though this author is advocating or critiquing this program”

    From the Article: ” If state and local school officials, along with teachers unions, step up to the challenge, Race to the Top could begin to rationalize America’s schools”

    OK. Sure.

  27. Mark H says:

    “Two horses I have to make sure receive an excellent education so they can move out!”

    Me, I’m hoping my 5 year old grows up to be able to subsidize my retirement :)

  28. pandora says:

    Mark, you dream big! :-)

  29. cassandra_m says:

    From the Article in its context:

    Washington, D.C., is also applying for Race to the Top money from the Obama administration, along with many states. To qualify, states must first remove any legal barriers to linking student test scores to teachers—something California and Wisconsin are already doing. To win money, states must also begin distinguishing between effective and ineffective teachers—and consider that information when deciding whether to grant tenure, give raises, or fire a teacher or principal (a linkage that the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, has criticized as “inappropriate” federal interference in local prerogatives). And each year, states must publish which of their education and other prep programs produced the most effective (and ineffective) teachers and principals. If state and local school officials, along with teachers unions, step up to the challenge, Race to the Top could begin to rationalize America’s schools.

    I’m thinking that john’s English teachers are trying to figure out how to take back their grades for reading comprehension and vocabulary now.

  30. anon says:

    Perseverance is an important thing to learn, and a wonderful trait to instill in a child, but I’m not sure an accelerated learning program is the place to hash all that out. I, for one, am thankful my Gifted and Talented Program wasn’t slowed down by “hard workers.”

    Herb was clearly “mislabeled.”

  31. John says:

    Cassandra,

    How does the extra context change the brazen, hope filled desire for the Race to the Top to be implemented in the last sentence.

    My teachers are in no need of rescinding my grades.

    I think your attempt to suggest that the last sentence is anything other than “advocating” for the program as you declared the author was not doing to be unequivocally disingenuous and an unfair representation of the author’s views.

    Perhaps we are in semantic disagreement, but the words are the words.

  32. cassandra_m says:

    The only way you come up with that sentence (well away from the very complete paragraph that accompanies it — which is your first demerit. People write in paragraphs for a reason.) “advocating” anything is of you think that “rationalizing” somehow implies some cheerleading for Race for the Top. This use is more about bringing some efficiency or to reduce some unnecessary methods, processes or whatever to streamline an effort. Which fits just perfectly with the list of speedbumps listed in the rest of the paragraph.

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