what makes a great teacher

The current issue of Atlantic Monthly has a great article on what makes a great teacher, which both gives results of quantitative analysis and impressive case studies. Highly recommended.

An excerpt:
"For years, the secrets to great teaching have seemed more like alchemy than science, a mix of motivational mumbo jumbo and misty-eyed tales of inspiration and dedication. But for more than a decade, one organization has been tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and looking at why some teachers can move them three grade levels ahead in a year and others can’t. Now, as the Obama administration offers states more than $4 billion to identify and cultivate effective teachers, Teach for America is ready to release its data. …

Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

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.

But when Farr took his findings to teachers, they wanted more. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah. Give me the concrete actions. What does this mean for a lesson plan?’” [End of excerpt]

Amanda Ripley tells us. The full results of the Teach for America analysis are in Steven Farr’s book Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap. Here is a partly worthy and partly less worthy critique of the article (her good point is that having uber-motivated teachers won’t fix structural problems in the system: true!).

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4 thoughts on “what makes a great teacher”

  1. Thanks for posting this link. I can’t wait to read the article. My kids have had a few teachers like that who are obviously constantly reevaluating. Two of my favorites, however, were women who had 25+ years of experience and had (I imagine, through lots of reevaluation) come across their own winning formulas. And after all that time they were still full of passion for their job.

  2. That’s a great article! I’m putting the book on my to-read list. Did it strike you, as it did me, how strange it is that a certain standard for teaching has never been a big focus for educational reform?

    1. i also think the book looks great. i think one of the big challenges is that historically it’s been very challenging (and still is) to characterize good teaching. lots of evidence suggests that levels of training and other things that are easy to measure are very poor predictors of teacher quality. TFA has set a great example of gathering lots of data, examining it systematically, and revising the analysis.

      But yes, it is strange. 🙂

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