What makes a great teacher? May be more science than art to it

The question of what makes a great teacher has become the hippest and hottest topic around.

In a recent, widely read New York Times article ( “Building a Better Teacher”), Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools, a network of 16 charter schools in the Northeast, described his 5-year odyssey to answer that question. He began looking for special qualities that exceptional teachers shared, but instead came up with a taxonomy of 49 bite-sized effective practices for teachers that will be published in a highly anticipated book this spring (Teach Like a Champion).

Lemov noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find, says the NY Times article. “What looked like natural born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. ‘Stand still when you’re giving direction,’ a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once.'”

Helping students progress from one grade level to the next, the thinking goes, is not unlike safely flying an airplane from one airport to the next. Success may have less to do with the talent and aptitude of the pilot (teacher) but with whether he or she consistently follows proven effective practices in the field. Lemov amassed a collection of 700 video clips of outstanding teachers actually using the 49 techniques in their classrooms providing irrefutable evidence that they work with real students.

In The Atlantic magazine (What makes a great teacher?), Steven Farr of Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools, describes his own quest for the secret formula. Working with Teach for America data on hundreds of thousands of students and their teachers and his own classroom observations, Farr and his colleagues made lists of specific teacher actions that fell under the high-level principles they had identified (e.g. setting big goals, involving families in the process). His findings are laid out in a new book called Teaching as Leadership.

The current issue of Educational Research Newsletter adds to this discussion by reporting on two studies. One is a study based on Teach for America data that identifies positive traits that predict teacher effectiveness. Another is a research article on a demonstration classroom that allows teachers to see how new strategies actually work in a classroom.

The demonstration classroom was set up to improve literacy practices in the district, reports a recent study in the journal, Professional Development in Education. Said one teacher who was an observer in the demo classroom: “..it is really hard to have someone tell you how to do something without seeing it. I needed to see it. I needed to actually observe someone doing it.”

Recent best seller, The Checklist Manifesto, describes how airline pilots, heart surgeons and builders of skyscrapers have embraced the humble checklist as a pathway to excellence in their challenging, high-stakes professions. In trying to answer the question, what makes a great teacher, Farr and Lemov have provided teachers a checklist of specific practices they can follow to be more effective in the classroom.

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