True Grit and Great Teachers

When the progress of children is measured, it turns out that the particular school they attend may often be less important than the specific teacher that they get.  A great teacher can move kids academically ahead by multiple years in a single school year, while a mediocre teacher may cause equally able kids to lose ground.

An article in The Atlantic by Amanda Ripley, “What Makes A Great Teacher?” outlined some interesting factors that seem to predict who will make a great teacher… and this strongly predicts how much kids will learn and grow in any given classroom.

While the article is well worth reading, particularly in helping us frame how to think about fixing our largely broken educational system, I wanted to give the highlights so that parents can better advocate for their own kids, and ultimately for all our children, to receive the optimal educations that they deserve.

I know that readers of this blog range from private school, to public school, special needs schools, charter schools and home-schooling, so whether we are directly teaching, helping with homework or trying to find a way to talk to a school administrator about a disappointing teacher, the gathering trend on what seems to make for a great teacher appears to distill down to seven key qualities:

  1. Great teachers tend to set big goals for their students.  Thus, high (not unrealistic) expectations inspire and encourage kids to learn and grow.
  2. Great teachers continually look for ways to improve their own effectiveness, they are always re-evaluating their own performance and shaking things up (think of the opposite, the teacher who drones through their boring lesson plan year after year)
  3. Standout teachers work assiduously to draw kids and families into their teaching process (i.e. calling the parents who don’t show up to back-to-school night to positively engage with them).
  4. They maintain focus, considering how everything they do contributes to student learning (i.e. having a conscious rationale for their choices. When combined with #2, this bears fruit over time).
  5. They do thorough planning—for the next day and the course of the year—and work backward from their end-goals (i.e. they know what level of mastery they expect from students and break it down into steps to get there).
  6. They persevere, working relentlessly through obstacles of money (kid poverty and budget shortfalls alike) and bureaucracy to reach and help their students.  This is teaching’s True Grit.
  7. This was not in the Atlantic article, but I believe it’s key:  They put love into their work and into the kids they teach.

Beyond grit and a history of leadership achievement another interesting factor in effective teaching turns out to be general satisfaction with life.  This makes intuitive sense:  a person who wants what they already have is a happy person; a happy person is going to be more fun to hang out with every day than someone who wishes they were somewhere else; kids are going to bloom like flowers under the light of being cared about, interested in, believed in and listened to.

Sadly, our society doesn’t do much for teachers, who in turn are limited, over time, in how much they can do for kids (a lot of great teachers burn out, or trade up to jobs where they can make more money to be able to support their own families).

Much of this great teaching and great info comes from Teach for America (and not the public educational system that is starting to crib notes from Teach for America).

So, let’s dedicate today to cultivating the great teacher within us, and between us—in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “True Grit and Great Teachers”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Could not agree more. When choosing a school for my kids when little (public school vs private, when private wouldn’t have been out of the question financially), I sat in classes. I watched. I listened. The very diverse public city school had some outstanding teachers. That’s where my kids went. And where my volunteering activities went as well, with an employer who allowed me the flexibility to be involved in my kids’ schooling. That makes a difference, too. And those employers and bosses who provide that flexibility are golden. Would that they were the norm.

    Even in public high schools, there are still exceptional teachers. Perhaps fewer (who can blame them?), but they exist. If you don’t mind the reference – an example: http://dailyplateofcrazy.com/2010/01/21/an-apple-for-the-teacher/

    Such a critical issue. Teaching, almost as “undervalued” as parenting in this country.

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    As an alumna of TFA, I have followed much of the recent criticism of the organization, including a battle between incoming TFA corpsmembers and the Boston teachers’ union. It saddens me that teachers themselves feel compelled to close their arms and hearts to innovation, but, given the status of teachers in our society, I can understand to some extent the bunker mentality.

    I only wish, for the sake of our children, that all teachers could come together to celebrate excellent teaching and to eradicate bad teaching. For an example of the latter, please see this terrifying article from the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_brill

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