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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Makes a Great Teacher?

By Peter DeWitt — June 05, 2012 5 min read
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“The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Todd Whitaker

Lately, there has been a lot of debate about what makes a great teacher. We all spend a great deal of time trying to distinguish between the good ones and bad ones. Through new accountability measures, high stakes testing is being used to show whether the best teachers are in the classroom in front of our most important resource, which is our students.

Many of us understand that high stakes testing shows one moment in time and even the best teachers have students who do not do well on tests. Even the best teachers cannot control outside factors that affect performance. Some students, as hard as they may try, do not do well on tests. So how do we truly differentiate between good teachers and bad ones? How do we look beyond the data and find other examples of what great teaching looks like?

Unfortunately, that very question plays out in political campaigns and thirty second commercials showing that state governments are taking a “tough” stance on teachers. The mere fact that so much money is being spent on focusing on bad teachers makes everyone, including those parents within great districts, second guess their child’s education. A great education is something that all students should get but making teachers the scapegoat for a much larger issue (i.e. poverty, parenting, etc.) is not appropriate.

There are great teachers in every school. Those teachers look beyond their circumstances and the circumstances of their students, to see the potential that every child has when they walk into the classroom. Those teachers not only teach students, they get involved in the lives of families that are struggling. They teach their students’ parents how to help their children learn, because some of those parents didn’t have a good school experience when they were growing up. Great teachers build a bridge between families and school.

Staff Development
I am fortunate because I get to spend my time with teachers I admire. We argue over ideas at times but we know we have something special. We have seen many great times together but we have seen many tough times as well, that have been both professional and personal. Those are the times that we come together as a family.

As summer time comes, I will miss seeing the staff I get to work with because a school is a lonely place when the students and staff are gone. Working in isolation is not fun, and I value the input that the staff gives to me. Some of our staff will not be back because they have lost their jobs and others are retiring. As the summer begins and we look to refresh and relax, I also have to grieve a bit because the school will be a different place next year.

Schools have been criticized for being institutions that have never changed, and now they are places that are quickly changing. However, some of that change is not for the better. We have gone from a place of creativity and academic freedom to a place that is being consumed by accountability. Don’t get me wrong, we will still find ways to be creative and have academic freedom, but they will not be as plentiful as they once were.

On the other side, a much more optimistic one, I hope that some of the accountability measures will lead to important conversations with staff. I hope as we all go through the changes in our evaluative methods that we find ways to fairly look at areas that we need to improve upon at the same time we celebrate our strengths and accomplishments.

I worry though, because some principals did not have tough talks with their ineffective teachers, the rest of the teaching profession is paying the price. Our lives have become focused on HEDI. HEDI will tell us whether we are highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. Most educators will tell you that there are areas they do very well and other areas where they are developing.

One of the best parts of the education profession is that we are always trying to become highly effective, knowing that it will be difficult to get there. Much like runners are always looking for the runner’s high, great teachers are looking for those truly inspirational moments where they are working in unison with students, not caring about the time of day or whether the lesson went too long or not.

What Makes a Great Teacher?
Great teachers come from all walks of life. Some were outstanding students through their formative education, had great teachers as role models, and knew that they wanted to grow up and enter the profession. Other great teachers didn’t find learning to be easy and had to work hard to find success, and it was the teachers who helped them that also inspired them to enter the profession.

Teaching is not a job. It is a profession and most teachers do not leave it in the classroom when they go home. They take it with them to the grocery store when they see parents and kids. Great teachers get treated like rock stars when their students see them at the mall. There were a few times when I heard my name get yelled in the grocery store, and it was a student who could not believe that I left the classroom because they thought I slept at school. It was the only time I felt like a rock star.

Great teachers go shopping with their spouses and find things for their homes and for their classrooms all at the same time. They lay awake at night worrying about some of their students who go home to abusive households and feel depressed at the end of the school year because they know that, although it may have been a difficult year, their students are leaving them never to return.

Great teachers put their blood, sweat and tears into their profession and it’s about time the politicians and naysayers who think that education is failing should step off their soapboxes and step into the classroom because teaching is a difficult, and sometimes thankless, profession. Teachers spend their days caring about students who may not care about themselves. Teachers teach students who may seem unteachable, with parents who do not care about education, and they spend every day providing those individuals with a clean slate so they can find an inner spark that will change their lives.

In the End
As we enter another summer, one that will bring great changes in accountability, we need to reflect on the successes of the year and focus on how we will not allow education to be abused as much as it was in the past year. We need to focus on great teaching, and figure out how we will engage our students during a time when we are experiencing cut budgets and our students seem to be getting hit with more noise coming at them than ever before.

Great teaching is about being focused on the positive, while working on the negative. It’s about going into the classroom to try your best every day, even when there are others out in the community who think they can do it better although they have not been in a classroom since they were in school. Great teaching is about knowing that, as tough as education has been, it is still the only profession we ever want to do.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.