School & District Management

Educators, Researchers Debate What Makes Teachers Great

By Anthony Rebora — November 13, 2014 1 min read
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NPRed has a nice roundtable conversation with five leading educators on the question of “what makes a great teacher.” In her response, Mississippi Delta educator Renee Moore points to the process of teaching a child to ride a bike:

The Hebrew word for teach has, among its meanings: to aim or shoot like an arrow, to point like a finger, to flow like water. The word reminds me of what parents do when we teach our child to ride a bike. The first time, we may ride with her or turn the pedals. Next time, we steer while she pedals. Finally, the moment comes when we balance her, aim her down the sidewalk, push her off and let go. Great teachers do that: They start or move the minds of their students along a path, prepare them for the journey and propel them into the future. And they do it consistently and passionately.

But Ken Bain, president of the Best Teachers Institute, cautions against defining great teaching “in terms of what the teacher does to the student.” He steers Moore’s analogy in a different direction:

I think about the way my youngest grandson is learning to ride a bicycle. It actually isn't the way Renee describes. Rather, his parents bought him a balance bike when he was barely 3 years old, and simply gave it to him. He then figured out how to balance himself on it entirely on his own. ... Sometimes, great teaching happens when we simply provide the resources and challenges and get out of the way.

(Not that my perspective necessarily matters, but at least in terms of teaching a kid to ride a bike, I’d say as a parent there’s a little bit of both of these characterizations involved. Not to mention moments of panic and subsequent back aches ...)

Meanwhile, of course, policymakers and school leaders are on the lookout for less abstract answers to the question of what makes a teacher great, or at least effective. To that end, as Stephen Sawchuk reports in Education Week, a recent study out of the University of Washington suggests that important signifiers may be lying right under their noses—in teacher-candidates’ resumes and letters of recommendation:

[On one screening,] the candidates' recommendations showed a statistically significant correlation with [later] teacher effectiveness in math. [On a second, more detailed screening,] points for classroom-management skills [based on the candidates' resume and recommendations] were correlated with effectiveness in both reading and math instruction; high rankings on flexibility and instructional skill were linked to increases in math.

Which possibly suggests that the teachers destined to stand out are the simply the ones who are best prepared—likely in a variety of ways. Determining what drives them is another question.

Image: Flickr user, under creative commons.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.