Friday, January 22, 2010

What are the Characteristics of a Good Teacher

In the January/February (2010) issue of The Atlantic there is an interesting article entitled, What Makes a Great Teacher? by Amanda Ripley. It is an interesting piece, well written and has a lot to say about the characteristics of good teachers. But I am a little angry with myself that I didn't think about what makes a good teacher in this way, that is, by assessing good teachers and then looking at what they have or do in common. I've been doing that somewhat in these blogs over the past year but I haven't focused on what the commonalities were. Perhaps I should do that more as I write these blogs.

Ms. Ripley, a writer and reporter and not a teacher, spent much of the article on a non-profit program called Teach for America. They take college graduates, give them some training and place them in low-income schools for two years. Some succeed, some do not and some become excellent teachers. Why?

The first part of the article deals with two young fifth grade boys, one goes to one school and the other to a different school. One boy achieves better then grade level while the other boy falls behind. Ms. Ripley suggest that this is the result of the teachers--one teacher is the great one and the other is not. First off from a researchers narrow point of view, it would have been better if the two fifth grade boys had gone to the same school. There are too many variables already in the mix. Ripley writes about Mr. Taylor whose fifth grade boy excels but she doesn't write about the other teacher. This would have helped.

Then Ripley writes how Teach for America is studying the differences between their successful teachers and those that do not do as well. It is an interesting read. I find it fascinating that what Teach for America is doing to select the best incoming students many Colleges of Education have been doing for years. [a sidebar: The college of education where I taught at for thirty two years at Western Washington University is named "The Woodring College of Education." It is named after Paul Woodring who was a faculty member in the education department and also editor of the education edition of the Saturday Review of Literature for many years. I knew Paul and he continued to the very end that we should only admit those students who were the brightest and best and HAD to teach.]

Teach for America has a list of characteristics that you need to have before they will admit you to the program. You can review that list at: . Scroll down and your can survey the list of characteristics which they call leadership. It is interesting that many of the qualities that I have written about in good teachers are listed here. We need to do more research on teachers who do well and categorize their behavior.

Here is what I think good teachers have in abundance. First, the teacher in question HAS to teach. All of the teachers that I admire have to teach. Many say they could make more money elsewhere but they have to teach. Some of these teachers knew at an early age they were going to be teachers. Their minds did not comprehend doing something else. At one time in one of my college classes I started out in a pompous way by stating to a brand new class, "This is an education course. If any of you can do something else, please feel free to change your major. I recommend it." It was not a good way to start and that afternoon a student from that class came to see me although I did not have office hours at that time. She was furious with me and proceeded to lash out in a very emotional way. Yes, she could do other things but she wanted to be a teacher. She was going to be a teacher and she did not like me telling her to go elsewhere. She was more then angry. We sat down in my office and close to tears she said she had been waiting to be a teacher since grade school. Her mother was a teacher, her father was a teacher--I think her whole family was in education. And she was going to be the best damn teacher there was. I apologized and said that it probably not the smartest thing for me to start off with but I was really looking for student like her--not those that thought education classes would be easy. She sniffed and said I ought to phrase it better. We did become friends but it took much of the quarter for her to trust me. Yes, she did graduate and become a "damn good teacher." I'm proud of her. There are a lot like her who are teachers. They have to teach.

I think good teachers have drive--always looking for a way to improve something. Don't confuse drive with energy. Some of the great teachers who are quiet are always thinking on how to do it better. "How can I teach Anna how to read better?" Or "How should I explain uncommon fractions to Tommy." Good teachers are always looking for different ways to teach a subject. Do you remember way back when I wrote about the best grade school teacher I ever knew, Jo? The alcoholic, the ex-nun and the ex-Army officer? At the end of every third year she would throw out all her lesson plans, maps, charts, bulletin board stuff, whatever and start over. She'd alway told me that she didn't want to have one years experience thirty times. It's scary but I learned to do the same thing--get rid of all my teaching materials and start over.

Good teachers have control. Maybe you want to call it respect or love, but kids need to know their teacher is working for them. When a teacher says to get books out or have the class watch the board, the students do just that. I find this characteristic as important at the high school level as it is at the grade school level. I have watch a teacher just look across the room at a student and they immediate sit down or do what was asked of them. Teachers have eyes in the back of their heads? Certainly, but it is this control that is essential. Do you also remember my student teacher who rode up to the school on her large Harley and thereby gained control. That was what both of us were looking for.

One of the characteristics that Teach for America looked for was what were the goals of the teacher. And it turned out that good teachers have broad goals for their students and they are long range. "My students will really do well in math this year." Then they work back and figure our what skills each child or student needs. Some school districts bother me with detailed lesson plans that teachers are suppose to follow. It has gotten worse since the "No Child Left Behind" was introduced. Most good teachers have a much larger view of what they will do in their class during the year starting with day one. And their lessons change depending upon how their students respond. If the students are not getting it, then the lesson plans are scrapped and a different approach is applied. My first blog was about a teacher who took my small footprints on a blackboard and changed them into a lesson plan on how to read. I admire good teachers.

I find good teachers do not talk down to their students. I don't know how many times a day I would hug a student. I can't do that now--pity. But students need to know that the teacher is there for them. Not one of my finest hours I remember coming into my fourth grade one day at the beginning of the school day and saying, "I'm in a bad mood today so don't do anything that might cross me." I've heard other teachers say that to me. I'm now embarrassed....not very professional. But anyway, a couple of weeks later one of my students came into class that morning and said, "I'm in a bad mood today so don't do anything that might cross me." I really heard me! And I thought if I can say it why can't he? Well, we had a carroll in the room and I asked Eddie if he would like to work at the carroll today. I turned it around so he could not see the room and the kids couldn't see him. We got his books and he was pleased with the result. I taught class that day with Eddie hearing me but not seeing the classroom. By noon he came out of the carroll and said he was feeling much better. I sat down with him and we talked for awhile. He had problems at home and we talked about what he might do. He thanked me and then gave me a hug. In fact Eddie gave me a chance to talk to the class about what should we as a class do if someone is having a bad day. How do you know you're having a bad day? What should you do and what should you expect from the class? It was a revelation to me how smart these kids were. And it brought us together closer as a class. Learning is a group effort. It is more then fascinating that Mr. Taylor, the good teacher in Riply's article puts his kids in groups and has a team leader.

I'll write more about these characteristics in the future. I like the tone of the article of looking to what are the commonalities of good teachers. Instead of looking for "bad" teachers whatever that means, this is a positive approach.

And to all the good teachers out in the classrooms be it grade school, middle school or high school, thank you for needing to teach. You also taught me a lot. Thanks.

1 comment:

  1. what is the schema of the characteristic of a well-liked teacher to the students?