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The program Teach For America has been trying to answer that question since its founding about 20 years ago, so it's been studying the traits common to successful teachers.
WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Steven Farr, who's written a book about Teach For America's findings, and asked why it's so hard to pinpoint what makes a great teacher great.
Steven Farr: One, the work is extremely difficult. It's just extremely complex work. And I think that sometimes we walk into a classroom and we assume the most superficial differences between teachers are the reason they're more and less successful. You know, we do work in this myth of the superhero, charismatic, fire-and-brimstone teacher. But the fact is, we have teachers with that style who are getting great results and, frankly, there are teachers with that style who are not getting great results with kids. And when we actually just look at how the students are performing, we see a wide range of styles and personalities that are getting great results from very soft-spoken, quiet, focused leaders to very dramatic teachers who you would say, well, that person has a lot of charisma.
Teach For America, over the course of its existence, says that it's seen certain patterns emerge among good teachers. In fact, it pinpoints six in particular. Can you give us a brief overview of those six key qualities you say good teachers have?
When we look across the span of our teachers and study what distinguishes the most effective ones, we see common patterns every time. We see teachers who are setting ambitious goals at the beginning of the year. We see teachers who are putting lots of energy into motivating their students and their families, investing students in the idea that hard work is key to success. We see teachers who are planning backwards, basically. They are always saying: where do I want to be and how am I going to I get there? We see teachers who think about implementation slightly differently. They're always thinking about: how do I need to adjust the plans that I have so I'm still getting to my objective? We see teachers who are constantly changing what they're doing. They're improving their actions by experimenting with their systems. And we also see that these teachers are just working relentlessly toward those goals.
You've spent so much time focusing on what makes an effective teacher; have you also come up with a profile of what makes a poor teacher?
You know, we haven't focused on what's the profile of a poor teacher. I do think that when we study the effectiveness of teachers, we do see that teaching is not for everyone. This is hard work and there are certain, I would say, mindsets and beliefs that we have to have coming into the classroom. We have to have people who have high expectations for students, that believe that their children — despite all the challenges that they have in their lives — can, in fact, achieve at a high level. And we need people who will focus on what's within their control and not worry as much about the things that are not in their control.
Can bad teachers, or unsuccessful teachers, improve?
I think that if we have teachers who have these mindsets, we absolutely can support our teachers to be more effective.
But even the most determined mindset is likely going to become discouraged when it faces continual lack of support within the system. How realistic is it to ask teachers to continue to be determined when the support often isn't there?
It's hard. It is discouraging to be working so hard in a school and have budget cuts. It's discouraging to be working so hard in a school and have things that we're trying out not work with our students. That is where we are, I think, in many schools across the country. But I'm optimistic because I visit so many more classrooms and schools today than I did five years ago and 10 years ago where teachers are feeling supported. Yes, there are all these challenges of budgets and other challenges. But I think that if we step back and say where is education truly being transformational for children, where at the beginning we look at the demographics and they predict that these kids are going to drop out of high school and yet all of those kids are getting into AP classes, succeeding on AP tests, and going off and succeeding in college. Understanding what's happening in those places is the key, I think, to moving us forward.
This program aired on May 23, 2011.
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