Education Opinion

What is great teaching?

By Jessica Shyu — March 15, 2008 10 min read
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Update: This part got buried below, but it’s a critical message that I want to highlight. “First year and other new teachers out there-- YES YOU CAN. You CAN get your students to read two grade levels higher by the end of the year. You CAN get your third graders who can’t yet subtract to multiply and divide like cute little actuaries by the end of the year. DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU THAT YOU CAN’T. I DID IT, MY COLLEAGUES DID IT, AND A NUMBER OF MY FIRST-YEAR TEACHERS ARE DOING IT THIS VERY MINUTE. IT’S VERY HARD, BUT IT’S POSSIBLE AND NECESSARY. PLEASE DON’T STOP TRYING.”

I’ve been promising myself to respond to every comment on the blog for the past month, but, um, I haven’t. What can I say? You know how 60-hour work weeks go. But that doesn’t mean I don’t read, mull, dwell, and obsess over comments and discussions started on this blog and others. Last week’s comments left on 125 G’s by readers John Boyer, Jim in New Orleans, and Brett were truly thought-provoking and deserve far more attention on this blog. Thank you for sharing your insights about the heart of great teaching. Keep on blogging.

What does “great teaching” mean to you?

This is what I think it means:

I think it means a teacher who can get kids-- all kids, whether they’re LEP, in Special Ed, have parents in jail, or have been in jail themselves-- to learn and retain a lot. Basic. Everything else is just the path to get there.

Typically, that “a lot” is defined by the state standards, which way too many of our kids can’t master. Yes, standards are constantly being revised or (desperately) demand revising, but for the most part, the state standards (and the national standards) are bars for where kids need to be.

Logic has it that if a great teacher is able to get a student to learn, then that student will be able to demonstrate their learning. Heck, they better be able to demonstrate it on a test or essay. Because if they can’t tell you what 4 x 5 is on an end-of-year test, are you really all that confident that they will know it in the next grade or at their job one day? Great teachers are confident about their students’ learning. Therefore, I do think student performance scores on appropriate and aligned assessments are key to measuring a teacher’s greatness. (Note the outrageous emphasis on appropriate and aligned assessments. I know my whole-hearted support of assessments will rattle some folks-- please share your comments. We’ll devote a blog entry to testing one day. =)

What does it take to become a great teacher?

OK, so back to my original point. To me, these rock star teachers who yield enduring student learning employ a variety of skills, including but not limited to:

Skill No. 1) Feasible, but high, high, high expectations that all their babies, 3 to 21 years old can and must learn. Great teachers genuinely care about their students and go to the end of the earth to help them. That said, you also need feasible, but high expectations for yourself. First year and other new teachers out there-- YES YOU CAN. You CAN get your students to read two grade levels higher by the end of the year. You CAN get your third graders who can’t yet subtract to multiply and divide like cute little actuaries by the end of the year. DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU THAT YOU CAN’T. I DID IT, MY COLLEAGUES DID IT, AND A NUMBER OF MY FIRST-YEAR TEACHERS ARE DOING IT THIS MINUTE. IT’S VERY HARD, BUT IT’S NOT ONLY POSSIBLE, IT’S NECESSARY. PLEASE DON’T STOP TRYING.

Skill No. 2) Strong plans. Hands down. All the good teachers who have enduring results I know plan. My own teachers from grade school included. When I first started teaching, I actually believed that being super-duper motivating and having high expectations would be enough to teach the kids. Wrong. I needed to thorough long term plan, unit plan, lesson plan and revise everything over again. I wasn’t a good teacher without doing (a lot) of homework of my own. This doesn’t mean that great teachers teach fact after fact so kids do well on tests. This means great teachers teach the necessary facts and skills that will enable students to think critically during the lesson and develop enduring understandings.

Skill No. 3) Motivating and investing their kids. Motivating and investing their families. Motivating and investing the postal carrier. Getting everyone around the students to care about students’ achievement. Even though planning is mandatory, teachers who can inspire and lead a la Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” (swoon) will move people to join a new mission called learning.

Skill No. 4) Ability to reflect about their own practice, identify what areas and which students aren’t learning, and be able to trace back exactly what is causing the problem, and be able to figure out the teacher actions that are contributing to it and then FIX IT. Fix it by changing it yourself, finding answers from other teachers, seeking help from mentors or observing a whole lot of amazing educators. The options are endless. The trick is in being able to honestly reflect about what needs to change, and using all the available resources out there.

I think having strong administrative support, sufficient support services, and technology are really great and can only help, but I don’t think they’re necessary for great teaching. As I’m compiling this list of what great teachers have, I’m actually going through a mental list of the folks I know who are all first-, second-, third-, fourth-, and 25- and 35-year veterans. All these great teachers have the key points I made above, but not necessarily the nice things like support and technology.

I am 25-years old, I’ve taught so far for only two years, and my current job is to professionally develop first- and second-year teachers so they are great, fast. Given my age, background and ideas (although they’re not particularly ground-breaking. I’m stealing them from great teachers after all), I imagine some would call all this idealistic. To that, I say two things: 1) Thank you, because if something idealistic becomes reality as this has so many times over, that means we can all expect to aim for the ideal; and 2) Please share your thoughts and ideas. According to Skill No. 4 above, a trick to great teaching is to ask everyone for help.

What does great teaching mean to you? And what does it take for teachers to get there?

Whose definition do you use to establish greatness? The greatest teachers I had were those who had the courage to reach beyond the traditional curriculum, rather than the teachers who followed all the “rules” as promulgated by Schools of Education and administrators.

The metrics used in a charter school may not be the same as those used to evaluate public school teachers, and the idea of evaluating a teacher based upon the test scores of his or her students would seem, to me, to reduce the attractiveness of a high needs teaching assignment to a great teacher.

In a similar vein, to suggest that National Board Certification be a criterion of “greatness”, as has been suggested in other forums, leads me to speculate that, as in many other areas of the education world, the way to get ahead is to engage in activities which result in less time spent preparing and executing the business of educating kids!

I applaud your sentiment, but remain skeptical as to an objective means to establish the criteria for “greatness” and how to teach it to others. “Greatness” comes from within, and often is not recognized by students until long after graduation, if at all. How do we as a profession treat those teachers who are not recognized as “great” by the education community, but whose influence is great upon the leaders of the future?

Posted by: James Boyer | March 7, 2008 2:27 PM

Ahhhhhhh, we get back to the basic question: What does good teaching look like? Many researchers in the field of education, Roland Barth for one, I believe, tried to address this question with a degree of legitimacy, and did a good job of doing so. Lee Shulman, I believe, also effectively addressed this question.

Nevertheless, good teaching is difficult to define. Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets’ Society” would fail most modern teacher evaluations miserably. Imagine throwing out the established curriculum: pedagogical blasphemy!! And yet- he inspired his students in ways few teachers could.

“Good teaching” is not like good nursing or good doctoring, where often there is a set course of action for a certain malady. Most people who have a broken arm will have it set the same way, with a few exceptions. Teaching is quite different. Ten students with dyslexia may have to be approached in ten different ways.

There are some things we know in terms of what good teaching looks like: good teachers have a sense of structure, consistency, they truly care about the learning of the students, among others. One thing that must be understood, however, is that good teachers generally take years to develop effective teaching and behavior management strategies.

School systems must understand a key component of “good teaching,” however- teachers must be supplied with what they NEED to be effective: technology, good training, mentoring with highly effective teachers, and the necessary support services. Too many times, the problem is that we bombard new, potentially very effective teachers with bureaucratic minutiae (lunch counts, collecting student fees, endless ineffective in-services) that compromise the time that could be better spent in preparing to serve the students. Feeling overwhelmed, they either quit or do what they have to do to survive.

Define good teaching, instruct the art of good teaching, and support good teaching. That would be a big step to teaching all teachers to be “great.”

Posted by: Jim in New Orleans-SPED teacher | March 9, 2008 11:30 AM

If you look at the website for the school in New York, they have a clearly defined set of expectations setting out what their definition of a great teacher is http://www.tepcharter.org. If I was a Middle School teacher, I would bust my tail to get on board at this school - take a look at what their expectations are and how the support structure is organized.

Great teaching starts with mastery of subject matter, continues with outstanding communication and observational skills, and culminates in the continual process of self assessment and reinvention necessary to improve effectiveness. It is an art, a skill set that can only be accumulated through rigorous applied study, application, and experience. TEP has it right - teaching is the job that deserves the highest pay in the educational environment. Until such time as this occurs, people like Jessica will leave the classroom and move into positions where the pay is commensurate with ability and the opportunity to impact learning and teaching is greater.

Basically - we have to step back and realize that a socialist (state run and evaluated with a captive consumer base) system such as public education is designed to simply sustain itself, not reward innovation or support progress. Step back for a second and really take a look at how your state’s educational system is structured, look at the levels of bureaucracy in even the local districts, perhaps even in your school.

I am no fan of school vouchers, nor do I think private schools are any better on the whole than public schools, but look at the institutional obstacles in place - there’s no recognition and reward for outstanding work on an individual level - I was constantly angered that 35% of the teachers in my last school got bonuses for work they had no part in. I left the classroom because I went completely off the top of the pay scale by taking a private sector position - a pay jump that would have taken another 15 years, no matter what efforts I made in the system.Such institutional mandates make it less likely that driven, talented people will join the profession in the first place, and that many will leave as they realize that motivation, effort and innovation are not recognized nor rewarded.

Posted by: Brett | March 13, 2008 9:29 AM

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