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.