WBUR

What Makes A Good Teacher?

BOSTON — For years, people thought the number of students per teacher was the most important factor in learning. Then educators focused on the size of schools. Now, more and more research shows that teacher quality matters most. But what makes a good teacher?

You might be impressed if your kid’s teacher has a master’s degree from Harvard’s School of Education. But researchers say you should think again.

“The things we think typically matter to make an effective teacher — how many years experience, how many degrees you have, whether you have a degree in this or a degree in that — don’t seem to matter much at all,” says Prof. Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

Pianta is one of the foremost experts on teacher quality. He’s an education school guy, so you might expect him to stand behind fancy schools. But years of research have led him to see past the ivory towers.

“What we find matters the most is what teachers actually do with kids in classrooms,” he says. “How do teachers interact with kids? How do they deliver instruction? How do they engage them? Those by far outweigh anything about a teacher’s background.”

A good teacher has to be a social worker, a manager and an instructor.

He says good teachers display “behavior in three big buckets.” Another way to put this is a good teacher has to play three different roles: a good teacher has to be a social worker, a manager and an instructor.

The social worker forms good relationships with kids and supports them emotionally.

George Donovan is a master at this. He’s sitting in his fourth-grade classroom at Brockton’s Angelo Elementary School. He and about 20 students sit in a circle.

“When we left on Friday, I asked you to try to be kind outside of school. Did anyone do anything outside of school this weekend that was kind?”

Every morning Donovan leads a meeting. He and the students all sit in a circle and talk about things like kindness and integrity.

Donovan is keenly aware of the kids’ perspective. So, he gets them to ask questions about what’s happening during the rest of the day.

“And there was one other thing that was new up there. Did anyone spot what’s new?”

For the first time, the kids are required to do science projects. Donovan delivers the news gently.

“You’re going to have the chance to do a science project. It’s at the end of the year, I believe in June is when you’ll show everyone. It’ll be fun, don’t get too worried about it.”

Because Donovan gains their trust in this meeting, the kids are willing to follow him into math, science and every other subject, where they know he’ll support them, even if they make mistakes.

At the same time, he’s creating a safe space. A teacher has to be a CEO or manager, according to Pianta.

“Do they manage time well?” Pianta asks. “Do they manage a lesson well? Do they manage the children’s behavior well?”

The teachers at Roxbury Prep Charter School in Boston are great managers.

Marisa Segel teaches English to sixth-graders. In the middle of class, she wants to switch activities and asks them to turn in their homework before doing the next task. This could easily eat up five minutes in another teacher’s class. Kids would drag their feet, pass notes, or chat with each other.

Instead she gives them a very short timeframe.

“I think we can do it in 20,” she says, meaning 20 seconds. “Nice hustle folks.”

All of the students participate. And Segel praises the ones working fastest.

“Dante looks eager. Sammy Sosa over there in the back, he looks ready to roll.”

“So, do teachers … really extend a lesson so that kids have a deeper conceptual understanding of what it is that’s being taught?”
– Prof. Bob Pianta

In Segel’s class, there’s more time for learning and less chance for distraction.

In addition to playing a social worker and a manager, a good teacher has to do a third thing: they have to teach. They should know their subject really well. Pianta says they have to stretch a child’s thinking, reasoning and problem-solving.

“So, do teachers just focus on a yes-no answer, or do they really extend a lesson so that kids have a deeper conceptual understanding of what it is that’s being taught?” he asks.

A good teacher leads students to epiphanies.

Ed Ballard gets epiphanies big and small from his third-graders at the William E. Russell Elementary School in Boston. He taught fractions by dividing up a big imaginary brownie represented by construction paper.

The kids knew how to name each fraction, but he had yet to teach them how to add them up.

“How many fourths am I holding?” he asks, kneeling down by a group of students working at their desks.

“Two,” they say in unison.

“What would be the equation for what I’m holding?”

“One-eighth,” says one little girl.

“One-fourth plus one-fourth,” Ballard says. “But what’s another way to say this?”

The kids aren’t getting it. But they’re engaged. Finally he picks up two imaginary brownie pieces and puts them together.

“When you have two one-fourths you can say two-fourths,” Ballard explains.

“Ahh,” says one little boy.

Another girl stands up and says, “I’m doing that too!”

According to Pianta, truly excellent teachers play all of these roles together: the social worker, the manager and the teacher.

Of course, no list is finite when it comes to defining a good teacher.

Teach For America, the nonprofit that trains recent college grads to teach in under-performing schools, says good teachers have a certain attitude.

The group studied its most effective teachers and produced a rubric to help others.

“Our best teachers as leaders walk in and set big visions and goals for student outcomes,” says Josh Biber, the executive director of Teach for America in Greater Boston. “They then invest their students and motivate those students in that vision. And they also invest anyone else involved.”

That means good teachers get parents involved.

He says good teachers also plan relentlessly. And if a plan’s not working and kids aren’t learning, they’re not afraid to start over again.

Even though groups like Teach For America are investing in this kind of research, and professors like Bob Pianta have evidence of what works, there’s no common language in most schools to describe these behaviors. And there’s no metric for measuring how well teachers display them.

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  • David Seaman

    I was a teacher for twenty two years from middle school through college age. A neurological disease pulled me out of it. I was a succesful teacher and this is apparant in the vast number of students who went into the field that I taught, the amount of students who keep in touch regularly, the number of times the yearbook was desdicated to me and the times that parents said to me, “You’re often a topic of conversation at our dinner table.”
    This is a result of intensive and constant work but it all boils down to one element: Respect. I teach respect  by walking the walk and keeping my mouth shut. By treating the students with respect and admonishing those who fail to be respectful and respect is like self-esteem. It is earned and not given; my students knew that all people desrved to be treated with dignity and kindness. True respect, the sort that creates hero worship, is the result of hard work; it’s the fruition of many hours of listening closely, making each student understand his or her value and not strewing power for power’s sake.
    I didn’t teach music and theatre. I taught people. I just used music and theatre to do it. I created situations for the students to develop high level thinking skills through guided disucssions and by carefully never using the words, “wrong answer.” As far as grading, I placed this low on my list of priorities. How the student grew as an individual and someone who would contribute to society was far more important than percentages. It is impossible- in ANY subject- to know exactly what a student has gotten from a class. And who am I, as the man with the grade book, to decide if the student who never came to school now made an effort to be in first period on time each day should get a lower grade than the student from a loving home who was able to recite the dates of Mozart, Beethoven and how these two men functioned as a result of the French Revolution? How was I to say how a students soul was affected after the study and performance of Randall Thompson and Robert Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star?” In part it has to do with what you read in his eyes. In part it has to do with the discussions you ha e with them in the cafeteria during their lunch time (and how they would be thrilled when I joined their table to eat) I earned the same amount of money as the woman down the hall who passed out maps of the world to be colored over and over, who yelled when the kids would talk (free exchange of ideas is important- I always tell my students that we are all teachers. It would be a huge amount of arrogance to think that I was the only one in the room who had anything to teach.) But I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for reciprocal love.
    The general publis hasn’t a clue as to what it takes to be a teacher, many of them believe that educating children is something that is done during school hours, unaware of the community job in doing this. Each time an adult curses in public or treats another person with disrespect, that person teaches. So as a teacher I do not argue with the state of how things are: If I must compensate for a lack of love and support at home then this is what Imust do to the best of my ability. As a choral director I worked alone in a room with groups of students as large as 150. Perhaps I was not as able to connect on MY side with each student as I wanted, but from their side, there was a personal connection. This is something that hass taken twenty-two years and the miracle of facebook to learn. Now, when I at last feel as though I am a master teacher instead of feeling that I had to hide my classroom practices from other teachers and administrators who looked upon a silent clasroom as a good thing,  I embrace what may look like Chaos in a room covered with ligts, artwork and anything to give the room warmth and I continue to try to create surprise in them. I embrace those times when discussion continues without me and I, a supefluous man in charge of the clock, can watch as the students respectfully engage in teaching each other.
    As far as salries, it’s all about American values. What tells us that a baseball player or motion picture actor should earn millions of dollars a year where a teacher will never top a hundred grand- even with my Master’s plus forty-nine. As with lesson plans, that’s just the way it is and excuses aren’t going to stop the flow of students who pass through the doors of every school every day.
    As long as education is public then it is political. And it is always to someone’s political advantage to bash education. But education must be public as it is the public’s responsibility to educate our young. Perhaps the money spent on graphing Massachusetts teachers’ slaries couold have bought a supplies for a classroom.

    • Kate B.

       David, you were my middle school music teacher, and you were everything this program says makes a great teacher and more.  You were always respectful, and you created a classroom atmosphere where we felt comfortable and safe, and I always looked forward to your class.  I think it’s partly because it seemed like you enjoyed teaching us.  I am a teacher now, and I try to create the same type of environment that you did.  So, thank you!

      • Kate B.

        And you encouraged us to think more deeply and to see the world around us with open eyes.  And you always made me personally feel like I had talent, which was the foundation for my focus on music in high school. 

    • AJ Palmer

      David: I understand what you mean when you say, “I didn’t teach music and theatre.  I taught people.”  Yet, part of the problem with education is a bifurcation or even greater divisions in the components of the educational process.  The world is a holistic experience for young people until we begin to separate things into categories and taxonomies.  We do teach people, but we also teach a subject matter.  Why did you choose to use music and theatre?  Those must have held some fascination for you?  The fact is, a subject matter becomes an effect and changes people in particular ways.  Therefore, it is important to combine all the elements into one experience so that the people that you teach are full beneficiaries of what you are teaching them.  Just a thought to consider.  The world truly is a unified whole if we practice from that point of view.

  • Stacy Amaral

    I was a teacher for twenty-five years and loved the job.  I often felt like an orchestra conductor. I agree with the comment about respect, it goes all ways. I am very glad that you are doing this series as good teachers deserve  attention.  Of course teachers reflect the rest of our society, there are all kinds. There are those of us who shouldn’t go near a classroom, who are poisonous in their attitudes. It would be a grand thing if good teachers were paid what we are worth and encouraged and the others were sent on their way…..maybe to employment where they could not harm children.

    Stacy Amaral

  • AJ Palmer

     I’m always amazed that it has taken so long for those preparing teachers and those interested in education to understand what makes a great teacher.  Ask successful teachers—they are easily identified because of the direct reports from their students—and they could easily tell the questioner what main qualities are required.  But most people from the outside—I consider the university faculty to be outside because of their disengagement directly with the schools and their students—have not spent sufficient time inside the school to see what is really going on with teachers and students.  I spent over 20 years preparing teachers and I could detect almost immediately those that would be great and those that would fall considerably lower on the scale.  There was a quiet enthusiasm about them and an assuredness about their chosen path, even those who were not the flamboyant personalities.  In fact, sometimes the flamboyant were too ego driven to be able to listen to a child.  The truly successful always exhibited a dose of humility in the face of their responsibilities.  And, of course, the successful contained an extraordinary understanding of their subject and felt obligated to share that with others.  Finally, as long as we ignore the human factor involved in education and insist on a business model in the schools, it won’t matter what efforts are made; education will always suffer.  P.S. Teachers are the most important people in the lives of students outside of family (and sometimes better than family) and they ought to be paid much more for their dedication than present salaries now exist.

  • Kate

     As a middle school teacher, I think it is so important for teachers to make the content and material relevant to their lives.  Once students see the meaning in what they are learning, it changes everything!

  • Katha

    Enthusiasm, clarity, respect for students, empathy – all these things are essential to good teaching.  I would like to add another category altogether: multi-sensory, structured teaching.  When a student sees information organized on a visual “scaffold”, then has to assemble their own thoughts on a similar “map”, they learn to distinguish details from a “big idea”.  The student learns to use the tools they need to manage their own feelings and thoughts.  So often teaching takes place through a child’s auditory channel alone, leaving out the other possible channels people have of gathering and manipulating information.  Multi-sensory teaching gives a child multiple ways of understanding and recalling information and ideas, and directly connects feelings to verbal thought. 

    Structuring information in a clear, builing-block fashion gives students the ability to gain a secure basis for their knowledge.   “Kindness” and “generosity” are very important ingredients of good teaching, but they do not help students hold and manipulate what they are taught.  To paraphrase David Seaman (below), one doesn’t teach music and theatre. One teaches people. One just uses academic subjects to create situations for the students to develop high
    level thinking skills.  Manipulating information with all a student’s senses – tactile, visual, auditory, kinesthetic – then clearly structuring the ways details are connected to higher-level patterns translates the teacher’s enthusiasm into student achievement.

  • Katha

    Enthusiasm, clarity, respect for students, empathy – all these things are essential to good teaching.  I would like to add another category altogether: multi-sensory, structured teaching.  When a student sees information organized on a visual “scaffold”, then has to assemble their own thoughts on a similar “map”, they learn to distinguish details from a “big idea”.  The student learns to use the tools they need to manage their own feelings and thoughts.  So often teaching takes place through a child’s auditory channel alone, leaving out the other possible channels people have of gathering and manipulating information.  Multi-sensory teaching gives a child multiple ways of understanding and recalling information and ideas, and directly connects feelings to verbal thought. 

    Structuring information in a clear, builing-block fashion gives students the ability to gain a secure basis for their knowledge.   “Kindness” and “generosity” are very important ingredients of good teaching, but they do not help students hold and manipulate what they are taught.  To paraphrase David Seaman (below), one doesn’t teach music and theatre. One teaches people. One just uses academic subjects to create situations for the students to develop high
    level thinking skills.  Manipulating information with all a student’s senses – tactile, visual, auditory, kinesthetic – then clearly structuring the ways details are connected to higher-level patterns translates the teacher’s enthusiasm into student achievement.

  • Sean

    It’s really interesting to read everyones opinion on this . We have been looking at the exact same issues here at the University of Warwick, UK. We have 3 short videos showing how the question ‘What makes an effective teacher?’ can be answered by 12/13 year olds right up to University students.

    http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/themes/01/effective_teacher

    Hope you find it useful!

  • asaraf ali

    Typos: KEEP THE FAITH

    18 Mar 2010 – KEEP THE FAITH. “It was my first time on the road as a volunteer with the Vamans. Through the day, both husband and wife gave tireless …http://prashantobanerji.blogspot.com/2010/03/keep-faith.html

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