What makes a good teacher

Students learn a lot more from some teachers than others, but “we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way,” writes Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic.

. . .  Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.

However, Teach for America “has been systematically pursuing this mystery for more than a decade—tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and analyzing why some teachers can move those kids three grade levels ahead in one year and others can’t,” Ripley writes.

Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.

Exceptionally effective teachers “set big goals for their students” and constantly look for ways to improve their teaching, TFA found.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

By learning from the practices of its best teachers, TFA boosted the percentage of teachers who moved their students one and a half or more years ahead in a year from 24 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2009.

TFA applicants who score high for “grit” and “life satisfaction” were more likely to excel in the classroom.  Screeners look for applicants who’ve achieved measurable goals and overcome challenges in the past.

BTW, a debate in comments centers on whether teachers have lower SAT scores than students pursuing other majors. College Board reports that high school students who say they plan to major in education have lower than average SAT scores. However, nobody knows how many of these students complete a college degree of any kind, much less how many end up as teachers.  Would-be high school teachers typically don’t major in education and have above-average SAT scores.

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  1. Excellent teachers or excellent test score juicers? Maybe they’re the same thing, maybe not. The article doesn’t say and Ripley seems incurious about it.

    I used to be concerned about curriculum narrowing. I’m less so now. I’m becoming concerned about our narrowing definition of what it means to be educated in America.

  2. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    The best teachers I’ve had in my life all had a few things in common:

    * They were really smart… not necessarily genius-level smart, but really sharp cookies who were also obviously well-read. Pretty much universally, the best teachers all have well-rounded educations. The best history teacher I ever had loved math, the best physics teacher I ever had read a lot about law and politics, and the best English teachers I ever had knew pretty much everything about everything, including art, music, and the history of science.

    * The best teachers I had were fearless about giving out D’s and F’s. Most of them were adept at wielding the threat of bad grades as well.

    * The best teachers I had seemed to have a picture of what they thought a well-educated person should look like, and wanted to turn their students into that picture.

    * The best teachers I had were never afraid to cede a little curricular control to students. They were willing to entertain new ideas about how things might be done and what should be studied.

    * The best teachers I had possessed little patience for idiocy, and they were able to wield a cruel humiliation with a surprising finesse.

  3. Too bad Amanda Ripley didn’t delve into the interesting conundrum of why teaching skill has been so widely disregarded and garners so little/no professional recognition.

  4. Good teaching is like good porn — we know it when we see it.

  5. One of the hard things is that great teachers are both effective and affective. And the second can’t be taught.

  6. Kevin Smith says:

    I have seen great teachers who are sweet and loving to their students and come off as touchy feely. I have seen great teachers who seem outwardly as mean as a rattlesnake. All of them had the knd of love of knowledge that Robert describes.

    My school has a 4’10” English teacher that has taught at my school for 35 years. She is widely believed to be the meanest human being on Earth. I have publicly stated that her Epitaph will read “Dear God here comes Earline, piss her off at your own peril” (and I truly believe that). My entire staff agreed. However her students learn a tremendous amount. Every year she has students whose parents INSIST on having their kids in her class, because they had her in high school and they want her to teach their kids. (They also freely admit to being scared of her to this day.)

    We also have a MAth teacher with 30 years experience who is all sweetness and light who teaches calculaus AND remedial math (yes both) who has the same thing happen (sometimes with the same parents).

    I guess great teachers really are hard to duplicate….but you DO know them when you see them.

  7. Every time I hear about organizations taking an analytical approach to education, I’m encouraged. This country needs more analytics in education, not less. Imagine where our hospitals would be if doctors hadn’t spent the last century looking for ideas that generate measurable improvement in outcomes for patients, while discarding those ideas that failed to yield improvement. Likewise in science – the gold standard for objectivity and measurement. Our modern standard of living is built on a technological foundation, and those technologies are the product of rigorous experimentation and measurement.

    That some feel this approach to innovation and constant improvement has no place in education is disheartening. I once attended an education forum where a panelist posed the question – would you rather be treated by a modern day doctor or Hippocrates? He then asked, would you rather be taught by a modern day professor or Socrates?

    The second question is clearly less rhetorical, and the difference is the scientific approach. While we have a long way to go with assessment – standardized exams are clearly an imperfect measuring stick – the underlying framework of experimentation and measurement has produced many of the most important developments in human history and they can have the same impact in education.

  8. Kevin Smith says:

    If the choice were Socrates with him having access to modern knowledge….Socrates. No contest.

  9. Tom Linehan says:

    “Screeners look for applicants who’ve achieved measurable goals and overcome challenges in the past.”

    David C. McClellan wrote a book about this called “Need for Achievement” in 1946. Only he showed that this was true for Nuns and janitors and Presidents as well.

  10. Teachers who never give up on their students would qualify as one of the best teachers…


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