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Teacher Effectiveness: More Than a Number

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There’s been so much talk recently about "the effective teacher" that those of us out here in the schools are a head-spinning mess of contemplation and reflection. Am I this kind of teacher or that? Did I do that well according to the so-and-so group, or was I effective at least in the eyes of the such-and-such commission?

Everyone from scholars to clerks in the local convenience mart are weighing in on what makes a teacher effective. And now that the idea of linking teacher evaluation to test scores is all the buzz, there’s even more of a need to determine what is meant by that somewhat inhospitable "e" word.

Let me begin by saying that although I understand this movement, I would like to share the joy and see it spread to other professions. I can’t say that recently I’ve heard anyone muse over the "effective doctor" or "effective lawyer" or "effective plumber." Yet again, teachers are swimming for their lives down in the petri dishes of society with all the world peering into microscopes at our work.

There are some researchers who have determined that good teaching is relative to high SAT scores and/or high IQ only—and that characteristics of personality do not play a role in teacher effectiveness. I would like to propose that there are, in fact, dispositions of great teaching that are unrelated to scholarly aptitude, that are based more on the heart of a teacher as opposed to the brain.

An effective teacher is committed

Being an effective teacher begins with commitment. Obviously, teachers have to be committed to student learning and all that’s involved in developing and planning lessons that are engaging and purposeful. But teachers must also be committed to the profession. Once a teacher shared with me: "This job is just that—a job. It’s a paycheck. I don’t think about it after I leave." Those who don’t honor their students, their staff, and their profession by engaging in reflective thought and meaningful action at and away from school do themselves and others a disservice.

Committed, caring individuals ensure that teaching does not become a profession that is "done to us" by others who are far removed from the work. Instead, effective teachers are partners who work with students who need extra instruction, who communicate with parents and the community about what’s best for their children, and who collaborate with colleagues to provide the best education possible for every child.

Committed teachers may:

• Work with students in an after-school program for remediation or enrichment purposes.
• Serve on a committee or task force in an effort to make a difference in a school or district.
• Follow education blog posts, articles, and newsworthy items to stay abreast of trends.
• Engage in meaningful conversations about the profession in an effort to be sure the "teacher voice" is heard.

To be effective is to be committed to children and to the profession, regardless of our SAT scores.

Effective teachers make relationships a priority

Being an effective teacher continues with the development of relationships. If you really want to know which teachers are making a difference, ask the kids. They are aware of the adults in the building who display genuine concern and care for them every day. These are the teachers who can sense a life-altering family trauma that occurred the night before at forty paces down a school hallway. These are educators who notice loose teeth and boo-boos as well as college rejections and post-prom break-ups and handle them with sensitivity and compassion. These are the individuals who treat all children with the same unconditional concern, while at the same time holding high expectations for all.

Effective teachers don’t only care for kids, though. These are the educators who also understand the plight of the parent—that they are sending their very best to us, their dreams-come-true, and they may feel that there is no one who can do enough for their children.

Once I had a conversation about a student with a colleague; it was a behavioral play-by-play, complete with color commentary. The student’s mother walked up behind us and overheard the conversation. Later she said to me, "You may have 800 students in this school, but I have only one. I need you to care about my ‘one.’" That parent changed my thinking about the students I teach. Now when they’re pushing my buttons, I picture them almost asleep, getting tucked in by these same parents. With the picture of that parent-student bond in my head, my "buttons" are a little more difficult to push than they once were.

Effective teachers are also sensitive to the needs of their colleagues, including teachers and other staff, like administrators. They are able to "walk the mile" in many others’ shoes, while offering assistance whenever necessary. These are the educators who are willing to share time and resources with those side-by-side with them in this most noble profession; they do not hide behind the closed classroom door and work in isolation. In addition, they recognize the plight of the administrators who work in the "big picture" of the school every day and sometimes miss the "details" that concern teachers.

At the end of the last school year, an opening became available in my school. Instead of filling that particular opening, my principal moved a teacher from another grade level to fill it. Then he moved a teacher from yet another grade level to fill that position left open. Teachers were scrambling to move entire classrooms of books and materials just before school started. I spoke with my principal, explaining that "Mrs. K. has already decorated her walls with student work and would now have to take everything down and start over. Wouldn’t it be easier to hire a teacher for that one slot left open?"

I’ll never forget standing in the hallway listening to my principal’s vision for the entire school—how this teacher would bring this strength to this grade level and that one would bring these leadership skills to that grade level. I realized during that moment that our administrators have a different perspective, one that is an integral part of the school as a whole. And effective teachers are able to understand these different viewpoints, not just the one from Room 123.

Effective teachers demonstrate their passion for learning

Also, contrary to the belief of some researchers I’ve read about recently, effective teachers do have an energetic personality that exudes excitement and passion once they step in front of a room full of children. Yes, I have seen some of the best teachers in the land drag themselves into the school and almost fall asleep on the sign-in sheet. But once those students hit the halls, it’s ON! Adults are welcoming students, calling names up and down the hallways, sharing jokes and stories, and engaging them as soon as their big and little feet carry them into the building. Effective teachers are fun, and students want to be near them. They make work seem like, well, play. And don’t we all learn more when we’re having fun?

Effective teachers are passionate for their profession and their content area. I once rode in a car with a science teacher who made a three-hour drive bearable by identifying and describing the clouds in the sky. Somewhere after "cumulus" I was hooked. Learning is a cinch when teachers love their jobs and love sharing what they know with others.

Effective teachers are always reinventing themselves

And last, effective teachers embrace change by reinventing themselves as cutting-edge pedagogy is introduced into the schools. Seeking out professional development opportunities that enable teachers to throw out old ideas and teach in new and innovative ways is the trademark of effectiveness. The Madonnas of education are ready and willing to let go of "but that’s the way we’ve always done it" and seek out better and smarter ways to teach.

Being an effective teacher means being able to change from year to year, from day to day, or from minute to minute, depending on the needs of the school, the class, and the students.

And just as teaching is an endeavor that changes constantly, the definition of effective teaching changes also. We’ll never be able to pinpoint exactly which score or behavioral trait makes a teacher effective, but anyone can tell you—it’s a job that takes a lot of heart. Let’s make sure we put that in any "value-added" formula we employ to measure the worthiness of the people who teach our kids.

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