Parents fret about getting their kids into the best schools they can but, once enrolled, they assume that every teacher in their child’s school is good to great simply because of the school’s reputation. This works in reverse as well; parents agonize when their children wind up in schools with mediocre or poor reputations because they assume that the teachers will be inadequate too.
Here’s a scary fact. Where you send your child to school doesn’t matter as much as who your child’s teacher is. Even in the supposedly good school in the mythically good neighborhoods, teacher quality from classroom to classroom varies. Sometimes a lot. And that affects children more than anything else.
A recent article in The Atlantic by Amanda Ripley explores the very real issue that affects all children regardless of their backgrounds and raises, again, the question – What makes a good teacher and how can we teach all teachers to be that good?
The Obama Administration is proposing changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that would revamp the gauging of student progress to a system that would focus on workplace/university readiness. It would also include funding for competitive grants that encourage states to build systems for recruiting, training, retaining and awarding effective teachers and administrators.
While the administration’s proposals might sound common sense, it should be remembered that there is no universally accepted method for evaluating students or their teachers that takes into account the complexity of both tasks.
The template for a model is emerging, however, thanks to Teach for America. (see this post by Fiona O’Sullivan) Their screening process and subsequent evaluations of successful Teach for America classroom teachers has provided valuable insight into what separates the good from the great from the superstar educators. From this program, a model for evaluation of teacher performance is emerging that may prove to be the foundation of future teacher training programs.
So what qualities does a good teacher possess? In the classroom this teacher, the one who pulls out the best in nearly every child who crosses his/her path, exhibits the following
- Always searching for ways to improve their effectiveness
- Constantly reevaluating what they are doing in the classroom
- Reach out to students’ families in an effort to involve them
- Focus on outcomes. Everything in the classroom is geared toward student achievement
- They plan constantly – the next day or week or year
- Refuse to be defeated by obstacles like bureaucracy, poverty or budget shortfalls – in other words: no excuses
- They check students for understanding continually and in multiple ways
But evaluating teachers is easy when compared to finding those who might become good teachers because, though it is apparent who can and cannot teach after the first year or two, it is incredibly difficult to dismiss teachers once they are hired in most school districts. Teach for America created and discarded many a theory on the “right stuff”, discovering among other things that it is impossible to screen people for “relentless mindsets” and that people who reflect, evaluate and redirect themselves don’t make better teachers than those who don’t.
What does the future successful teacher look like?
According to a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, those professionals destined for success as teachers possess high levels of perseverance and passion for long-term goals. This is apparently measurable through GPA. Students who had mediocre grades beginning college but finished strong in their last two years in terms of GPA and other academic achievements were more likely to make good teachers than those students who scored straight A’s all along. The theory is that people who are inclined to work harder to achieve long terms goals have the “grit” required to ensure success in their own students. Interestingly, this “grit” measure is the one applied by West Point in predicting the success of cadets.
It remains to be seen if the states who win Race to the Top grants in the first round will employ any of the information gleaned through the Teach for America program when designing teacher evaluation models, or if education colleges will choose to employ more stringent screening methods of their applicants based on success predictors. It would seem that some of what has been learned could be easily applied sooner rather than later but that isn’t how things tend to work in bureaucratic systems. It certainly doesn’t remind me of my days as a teacher when new and improved meant “trendy” and programs came and went with superintendents.
Think about the best teachers you know. Did they possess any of the success predictors? Can you think of other factors that make a teacher great? Share your thoughts and examples of good teachers and excellent schools with us.