Opinion
Education Funding Opinion

Attention, Gates: Here’s What Makes a Great Teacher

By James D. Starkey — January 29, 2010 4 min read

Here are the first two paragraphs of a story that appeared in my local paper, The Denver Post, in the fall:

“In a quest to find out the best teaching practices, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving $45 million to six school districts, including Denver, for a two-year study of teaching.

“The Measures of Effective Teaching project will examine the work of 3,700 teachers from across the country, using videotapes, surveys, and student assessments to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

Now, I know I am supposed to applaud the foundation’s philanthropy. And I know I’m supposed to think it is about time somebody stepped in to do something substantive about public education. But I don’t feel that way. I think it stinks.

Interestingly enough, further on in the Post article there was a quote from Melinda Gates that said what I really think about this new research windfall. Speaking in a telephone news conference about the foundation’s near-decade of research into the factors that improve school quality, she said this: “What was the thing that works absolutely the best? At the end of the day, it is the teacher in the classroom.”

At the beginning of the day, too.

So my question is, if you know what the answer is, why are you spending $45 million on research?

I have a better idea. Give me the $45 million and I will save you some time. Or give the dough to any of the retired teachers I hang out with. We’ll tell you what the research will reveal about effective teaching, and it has almost nothing to do with time on task, identifying objectives, administrative fiats, or the latest recycled fad (small-group instruction, large-group instruction, writing workshops, reading labs, concept attainment, modular scheduling, block scheduling, traditional scheduling—or, for that matter, following curriculum guides). Teaching and learning happen whenever significant adults interact with and direct children. You can’t stop it.

Of course, it’s important to note that significant adults can promote learning that society doesn’t necessarily want. Guys who drive around town in chopped BMWs dripping in gold are significant. Fathers or mothers who abuse their children are significant. Catholic priests who fondle altar boys are significant. Sports heroes who—you know the rest—are significant.

I’m talking about the effect a serious and interested and knowledgeable adult can have on a group of children. It can be a wonderful thing to see. In such an atmosphere, learning happens regardless of the curriculum, or the objectives, or the strategies. In any given school, on any given day, you could walk by rooms with master teachers doing their thing. One might be a lecturer, and every day students would go into her class, get out notes, and pay attention. Another might be totally committed to large-group discussion, and every day that teacher’s students would be seated in a circle talking to one another. The teacher next door might deal exclusively with small groups. The one next to him might be convinced that a writers’-workshop approach is the best.

There are as many classroom approaches as there are master teachers, but the one thing they all have in common is that students learn. They get higher test scores. When you walk by such teachers’ rooms, students will be smiling. There will be no one asleep (well, let’s not get too carried away). Their classrooms, though different from one another, are good places to be. They feel right. And none of those teachers learned how to create that feeling in a methods class, or from an administrator, or from some groundbreaking research.

When the Gates Foundation finally crunches all the numbers from its two-year research project, that is what it will discover. Great teaching is not quantifiable. As dorky as this sounds, great teaching happens by magic. It isn’t something that can be taught. I’m not even sure that good teaching can be taught. The only thing that I know can be taught is average teaching, and almost anybody who has paid attention through all those interminable hours in school classrooms and is willing to work hard can pull that off.

Now I will attempt to give you the keys to great teaching. The fact that I understand the irony and hypocrisy in that statement makes it almost forgivable. And I will add a huge disclaimer: It is possible to talk about great teaching without being a great teacher yourself, which is the position I find myself in. I taught for almost 35 years and am still amazed that I wasn’t fired during my first four. The fact that I managed to stay in the profession so long could, I suppose, be an indictment of the tenure system.

But, on the other hand, my various supervisors’ indulgence during those first rocky years gave me the chance to get better. That is the one thing I can say for sure about my career.

Every year made me a better teacher. I could even go so far as to say that every year made me love teaching more. Of course, every year also made me hate schools more. There is no contradiction there.

The thing to do now is to make a list. Everyone likes lists. Educators are particularly taken by them. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times that just the act of making a list during a faculty meeting served to convince us that a problem was solved.

So, Bill and Melinda, listen up. Here are 10 qualities of a great teacher: (1) has a sense of humor; (2) is intuitive; (3) knows the subject matter; (4) listens well; (5) is articulate; (6) has an obsessive/compulsive side; (7) can be subversive; (8) is arrogant enough to be fearless; (9) has a performer’s instincts; (10) is a real taskmaster.

There, see how easy that was? And inexpensive to boot.

A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Attention, Gates Foundation

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Funding A Lifelong Advocate Explains Why The Feds Need to Invest in the Nation's School Buildings
A veteran advocate for improving school buildings sees the fight for funding as a generational battle with enormous stakes for communities.
6 min read
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C..
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C..
Alex Boerner for Education Week
Education Funding Schools Can Help Families Apply for Federal Help in Paying for Home Internet Access
Families who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program can get $50 off their monthly broadband bills.
2 min read
Image of a child's hand on a keyboard.
kiankhoon/IStock/Getty
Education Funding Miguel Cardona's First Budget Hearing Becomes Forum on In-Person Learning, 1619 Project
In his first public testimony to Congress as education secretary, Cardona also touched on standardized testing and student discipline.
6 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, right, talks to 12th grade art student Madri Mazo at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y. on April 22, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, left, talks to 12th grade art student Eugene Coleman at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y. in April.
Mark Lennihan/AP
Education Funding States Are Waffling Over Billions in K-12 Federal Relief. Schools Are Getting Antsy.
Schools in some states have already started spending money from recent federal stimulus packages. Others don’t yet have the dollars in hand.
6 min read
Conceptual image of money dropping into a jar.
iStock/Getty