Education Opinion

What Does Good Teaching Look Like?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 19, 2013 4 min read
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Imagine you just walked into the classroom of a truly excellent teacher, as she’s teaching a lesson. One of those “irreplaceables,” perhaps. What do you see and hear? What’s on the walls--and the whiteboard? How has she arranged the classroom? What are his students doing? Who’s talking--and what are they talking about? What’s the prevailing “atmosphere” in the room?

What does good teaching look like?

I used to use this question as a starter exercise in presenting workshops for candidates in the National Board Certification process. There was never a shortage of waving hands or answers: Lots of student work on the walls. No straight rows! Teacher is circulating. Real dialogue. Students asking questions. Room is colorful and inviting. A box for students’ portfolios. Students are engaged. Teacher knows his stuff. Kids are on task. Teacher is using technologies seamlessly. No sage on the stage!

The exercise could easily go on for half an hour, as teachers emptied their brains around their personal hallmarks of great teaching.

What was almost never mentioned: What the teacher was thinking--and how he made decisions as the lesson unfolded. Whether the teacher had clear learning goals, and if her goals were important and worth pursuing.

My last blog was on the central importance of identifying excellent practice as a means to improving education, before cooking up disruptive policy shifts. I shared several vignettes of teaching in a KIPP school, described by Gary Rubinstein, and said this: It’s axiomatic that good teaching matters (and yeah, I know that other things matter more, but stay with me). So why don’t we focus, laser-like, on what good teaching explicitly looks like and what it yields (two different things) and how to get it--everywhere?

A reader said this, in an e-mail: The observer was extremely judgmental - something that I find inappropriate and uninformed. I thought you were talking about needing to know what good teaching “looks” like, but then you shift to an entirely different position: that teachers are the ones who are best able to dissect and analyze their own teaching.

The reader raises a good point. There is no hard and fast template for what good teaching “looks like,” and much of what’s involved in good teaching isn’t visible. Some things that appear to be good teaching, on the surface, are not particularly effective in generating conditions conducive to learning. And it’s easy to misjudge “bad” teaching, based on things that turn out to not matter much in what students ultimately learn.

Rubinstein describes some things (a class that turns restless as a teacher fumbles with a video) that might not be indicative of weak teaching, just a lapse in preparation. And other things (an educator offering students candy to complete their homework) that really are evidence of some misunderstandings in that teacher’s pedagogical toolkit.

I once taught with a teacher whose room was awash in student work--hanging from the ceiling, lining the hallways--and bright, cheerful decorations, including curtains and soft furniture. She had pre-laminated bulletin boards for every two-week period in the school year, and highly detailed lesson plans (also laminated) listing standards, objectives and materials needed. But her teaching was sterile and rote, as she went through her numbered steps.

And this is why I have some real concern over Bill Gates’ ideas about evaluating teaching by putting billions of dollars’ worth of cameras in every classroom: you just don’t know what you’re seeing, until you have a conversation with the teacher and examine the students’ work products or listen to their discussions.

Here’s an example, from a video shot in my own work with National Board candidates:

A fiftyish male teacher with a buzz cut is teaching a class of middle school students a lesson on an important battle in the Civil War, with diagrams, shapes and arrows, using an overhead projector and accompanying student worksheets. The camera pans to the front row; a group of boys sit transfixed by the strategy of the Confederate army in taking Little Round Top.
A pony-tailed girl who has been "drifting" asks a clearly off-topic question about fashion in the Civil War era--how many hoops in a hoop skirt? The teacher, obviously irritated, snaps: "Is that what I was talking about? Are you getting this? If you're not paying attention, I'm not going to bore the rest of the class by going back."

Ouch. But--before we make a snap judgment about the teacher’s effectiveness--we all bark at kids, occasionally, don’t we? In thirty years of teaching, there are plenty of things that I wish I hadn’t said. Teachers are human.

Beyond that, however--what really mattered in that video clip? This is what a conversation with the teacher revealed:

#1) He had won several awards for teaching history--the proverbial “making history come alive” plaudits-- from statewide organizations. A veteran himself, he was a dedicated Civil War buff, who often took students on field trips to re-enactments. Some of those boys were in this class, which is why he chose this demonstration lesson to tape.

#2) The teacher knew the girl well. He suspected once the camera started rolling, she would ask a random, attention-seeking question, because this was her usual modus operandi. He had learned from experience to nip those lesson-derailing questions in the bud.

#3) The topic of the lesson was firmly tied to a state social studies curriculum standard around important military campaigns in the Civil War.

#4) But--after watching himself teach, the teacher had a kind of epiphany: While he was engaging the boys in the front row, half his class wasn’t paying attention at all. His unit on military strategy in the 19th century was a dud to a big chunk of the 8th graders he taught. He had been drawing game-play sketches on these Civil War battles in class for years. It was his passion--but didn’t hook many of his students into a greater understanding of the causes and outcomes of the war.

So he made some changes. And that self-analysis is--explicitly--what we hope all teachers will do, and what good teaching “looks like.”

What does good teaching look like to you? More importantly, what does it yield?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.