Sunday, October 28, 2012

What Makes a Great Teacher?

English: Teachers from the Exploratorium's Tea...
Teachers from the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute examine the "String Thing" they built (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Janel N Spencer

Some teachers regularly lift students' test scores, while others leave their students with below-average results year after year.

This can happen right next door to each other; same grade, same building. Results from dozens of studies point to the same most significant factor - a good teacher is the single greatest influence on a student's chance of success.

Among the factors that do not predict a teacher's ability? "A graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try," sites Elizabeth Green, writer for The New York Times.

"Parents have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school, statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of their children," said Amanda Ripley, reporting on the statistical findings of Teach for America.

Teach for America data suggests two major traits that link all good teachers: setting big goals for their students and continually looking for ways to improve their teaching. "Great teachers constantly reevaluate what they are doing," Ripley said.

A teacher needs to be constantly re-evaluating and paying attention to what is working for their students because every classroom is different. This takes patience and dedication, and a love for teaching, to do it right. Teacher Marie F. Hassett asserts, "Good teachers routinely think about and reflect on their classes, their students, their methods, and their materials."

"Another trait seemed to matter even more," Ripley says. Teachers who scored high in "life satisfaction" based on assessment tests were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom. No surprise here, a happier person is usually the better teacher.

Doug Lemov, teacher, principal, founder and consultant for the charter school network Uncommon Schools in New York, has a different approach when thinking about good teaching.

Lemov, who conducted his own research and published a "Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices," believes that what often looks like "natural-born genius" is actually "deliberate technique in disguise." He suggests that good teaching is not purely instinctive, but that good teachers can be made through acquiring knowledge of pedagogical techniques.

"Lemov's view is that getting students to pay attention is not only crucial but also a skill as specialized, intricate and learnable as playing guitar," Green explains.

In a study conducted by German researchers in 2010, Baumert and his colleagues tested 194 high school math teachers and found that although content knowledge is essential, teachers who possessed strong pedagogical knowledge as well as knowledge of mathematics were the most effective.

What about passion, and talent?

Author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer argues that good teaching isn't about technique. After many conversations with students about what makes a good teacher, Palmer says, "All of them describe people who have had some sort of connective capacity, who connect themselves to their students, their students to each other, and everyone to the subject being studied."

"Good teaching often has less to do with our knowledge and skills than with our attitude towards our students, our subject, and our work," says teacher Teacher Marie F. Hassett.

To add to the debate I asked my colleagues for their input on what makes a good teacher, and these are the traits we came up with here at 360 Education Solutions:

Making it fun

Using different teaching styles, a hands-on approach, and being adaptive are all markings of a good teacher. Good teachers have to stay in tune and up-to-date on educational standards, while also keeping their students involved by making it fun and including activities in their lessons.

If a teacher can keep their students engaged and constantly make things a discussion, they are doing well. A good teacher should challenge their students to think creatively, and influence them by being creative with how they teach.

Being invested

A good teacher is invested in the subject and their students. It is important to know the subject material well but also to understand how the students might understand or misunderstand it, and to be aware of them and what they need.

Getting to know your students on a personal level - such as what is going on in their lives - is important not only for connection but to understand what they need as a student. Elementary school teachers and even high school teachers are often required to play the role of both teacher and parent.

Preparing students for 'battle'

One colleague gave me a very descriptive example of how he sees a great teacher. Their job is to give their students "the sword and the shield," he explained, "so they can go into battle." Because when they complete their challenges, it's empowering, he says, and when they've done it themselves, they can claim ownership over it.

"Good teachers are the ones that don't give you the answer ... they open the door for you but let you walk through it," he says. "And the reason I'm saying this is because the stuff in my life that's important happened because of teachers and mentors like this."

Being tough

Nobody likes a teacher who is mean, spiteful or who over-punishes. But one co-worker likes a tough teacher because they challenge him. "It seems like the teachers everyone hates for giving the most work and not letting you get off easy end up being the ones you learn the most from," he said.

Other qualities we recalled about our favorite teachers:

• Relate-ability
• Have respect for their students
• Have enthusiasm
• Present new perspectives
• Care about their students and what they teach
• Are wiling to go the extra mile

Most importantly, good teachers are the ones that have the patience to give their students the attention they deserve, and are dedicated to helping them go further than anyone else thought possible.

"Good teaching is not a static state, but a constant process," Hassett concludes. "We have new opportunities to become better teachers every day; good teachers are the ones who seize more opportunities than they miss."

Remember: good teaching means students' success but this success cannot solely be judged based on test scores. Also, a student's success is not only dependent on a good teacher but on their own motivation as well.

A good teacher can only "show them the door," the student must walk through.
360 Education Solutions is an advocate group that promotes the education and professional development of teachers around the country. http://www.360-edu.com

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