Monday, July 8, 2013

What makes an excellent teacher?

On Friday, I got a great Twitter link through Edudemic regarding "How To Extend The Reach Of Excellent Teachers."  I knowingly nodded my head and agreed pretty much across the board to all the points made in the infographic, but then I didn't find what they felt made an "excellent" teacher.  What ARE the qualities that make an excellent teacher?  Of course, this got me thinking...
I thought about what happened when I walked into a great classroom or when I met a great teacher, how did I know I was in the presence of an excellent teacher?
I thought about when I was teaching at my very best, what made me good?
How did I know?
I began brainstorming.  I asked my wife, Katie, who is an excellent teacher.  We thought of all the great teachers we had seen and experienced and met.  What are their common qualities?
We came up with the following partial list of qualities:

  • clear, consistent expectations
  • clear, consistent communication
  • excitement and enthusiasm
  • warm, welcoming environment
  • understanding the students' perspectives and empathizing with their situations
  • flexibility
  • excellence within their field of expertise
  • unyielding push to see his/her students succeed

I dug into the infographic and followed my search to Opportunity Culture and Public Impact who had created the study that had fueled the infographic.  They have great ideas of how to use great teachers, but once again did little to identify them.
I surfed and searched the internet.  I found some good articles from different sources. "What makes a great teacher" was one.  Bill Gates has spent lots of his hard-earned money and written on this subject including this Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post.  Lots of people and articles articulated a desire for great and excellent teachers, but few explained what that meant.
I still didn't see what I thought was a clear understanding of what made an excellent teacher until I stumbled upon a presentation from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.  Dr. Jamie Johnston quoted former Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter (on a totally different subject) as he said, "I know it when I see it…" regarding good teaching.  Dr. Johnston also refreshingly listed what he thought made a great teacher, but he also alluded to the slipperiness involved in this identification.
Katie and I discussed the usual questions of quantifying these qualities, but there is a definite understanding of when one is in the presence of a great teacher.
One of the outstanding aspects to Dr. Johnston's presentation was his listing of great teachers by name.  I'll never forget going into Nancy Grippo's classroom during my first year as a teacher.  She was one of my mentors.  She glided around the class seemingly effortlessly.  She handled all sorts of questions and issues as if she'd done it a million times before.  She exuded a smooth feeling of absolute control.  It was amazing.  I knew it when I saw it and I was in my first year.  It was clear.
With that said, should I add control to my list?  Or should I add overall classroom direction to the list?  This is part of the slipperiness.  Where do we stop?  We could keep going for a long time.
From there, how do we make sure we get, retain, and reward great teachers?  Sure we know they're effective and their effectiveness can be extended, but do we really know what an excellent teacher is?  Or more importantly, do the people who make the hiring and budgeting decisions know what an excellent teacher is?
What do you think?  What makes an excellent teacher?  Do the planners know?  If not, how can we teach them?

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