One of the joys of retirement is having the time to reflect on our profession. Looking back over the 37 years I spent as an educator—20 of them as a teacher and 17 as an administrator—and reflecting on my own schooling as well, I think of the many highly effective teachers I've known. Spanning all grade levels, they engaged students in learning to the point of excitement and kindled the desire to keep on learning.
So what did these teachers have in common?
They Were Masters of Their Content
All of these teachers knew their subject matter. The questions they raised with students made it clear that it was OK not to know the details, but not OK not to pursue the answers. These teachers were enthusiastic about their subject matter, as though what was going on at that moment was the most important thing ever. They connected their content to everything they did.
One school had a science class for gifted and talented students. The science teacher lived and breathed science. One morning when I arrived at school—at 5:30 a.m., as was my habit—a car was already parked out in front. In it were a sleepy-eyed father and his twin daughters who were in 4th grade. As I walked toward the car, the girls were already bounding out the door. The father rolled down his window and said, "I hope it's all right for me to bring them. They said you'd be here, and they're sure the chicks in the lab hatched overnight. They couldn't wait to come. You know, they help the science teacher in the lab every morning."
Actually, I didn't know that they helped the science teacher, who didn't teach either of the children, but I did know that she shared her love of science with all the students in the school. By the time school started, every 4th grader had already been in to see the chicks.
They Were Insatiable Learners
Perhaps the most frustrated classroom teachers I have worked with or observed were those who thought that four years of undergraduate training should carry them through a 30-year career. These teachers feel oppressed by professional development of any kind. Their mantra is, "Just give me my kids, and let me teach."
The most effective teachers realize that the world and students have changed since they completed their undergraduate work, and they look for opportunities to address the gaps in their knowledge and ability. A middle school teacher learned about a local astronomical research laboratory and what it might offer students. The school curriculum didn't have a regular focus on astronomy, but a single trip helped this teacher realize that a world-class resource was in her backyard. Connections with the institute enabled students to watch and program the satellite dishes from their classroom computers. Students were then able to use the data collected on weather, planets, and stars in their daily science lessons. A teacher's enthusiasm for her own new learning enhanced her classroom.
In the final district in which I worked, we implemented the Baldrige Management System for Performance Excellence. This quality-based system, which requires constant review of data and information, created angst among many teachers. Professional development on the system met with mixed reviews.
But one day, a special education teacher called me into her room. She asked a kindergarten student to tell me about his "chart." "I was supposed to learn 50 words by Christmas," he said. Then he pointed to the October column on his bar graph and exclaimed, "See, I've learned 50 already. I get to learn more!" The teacher hadn't learned to use this system in her undergraduate work. Even though she was somewhat skeptical about whether it would work, she had learned it because she thought it might help her students. And it did.
They Had a Positive Outlook
Not earning enough money; having too many students, too many meetings, and too many levels of learners; trying to satisfy challenging expectations; and often feeling like the first line of defense against pandemics, child abuse, and student drug use—these are enough to get anybody down. But despite all these factors, effective teachers believe that today is the best day ever—and that tomorrow will be even better.
One compassionate 3rd grade teacher I knew vigorously lobbied to take into her class 12 students with special needs whom we were attempting to fully include in the regular student population. Late in September, I asked her to take on still another student—a little Finnish girl who didn't speak English. Three months later, the child was communicating well in the class. Just before Christmas break, the teacher left a note on my desk that read, "I just wanted to thank you for my class. You've apologized so often for the pressure it puts on me. But I love the students, and they are learning so very much. I would not have wanted it any other way."
They Were Team Members
Effective teachers know they cannot do the work alone. With so much information available these days, we need the best brains to work collaboratively to pull solutions together. It really does take a village.
But in high school, it's often more difficult to get this point across. The math department at the high school in which I was assistant principal was especially effective in this area. The department had aligned the curriculum both vertically and horizontally. A record-keeping system in the math office kept teachers current with what students knew and what they needed to know to move to the next level of math.
In the three years I held that position, not a single student was unsuccessful in math. If math teachers saw a new trend in student performance data that identified gaps in learning—for example, students not mastering polynomials—the department would revise the sequence or content of courses. Moreover, the advanced placement calculus teacher had a 100-percent pass rate (3 or better on the exam) for many years. That was possible because the department was committed to preparing the students through course sequencing, by ensuring mastery of skills before moving forward—providing tutoring, for example, and giving students extra time—and by frequently meeting with students, parents, and other teachers about students' achievement.
We had the same success in tech prep math, our applied mathematics program. Two teachers teamed up during their lunch and planning time to hold a special lab for students who struggled to pass the state exam. For many years, those teachers also had a 100-percent success rate.
They Created Communities for Success
The teachers I have described not only knew the achievement levels of their students, but also made sure that students knew where they were, where they needed to be, and how they would get there. Moreover, they created an environment in which students felt empowered and valuable and in which they learned to respectfully appreciate the differences in the room.
Through modeling and by clarifying expectations regarding conduct and engagement, these teachers promoted respectful interaction of students in their classrooms that was nothing short of democracy in action. Students could be at any level of learning ability or from any ethnic or religious group; students accepted one another with their body piercings, Goth clothing, dyed hair, or native dress. The focus was on learning.
These effective teachers did what all effective teachers do—they established clear and high expectations and gave students some choice in how they would learn. For example, rather than going over each homework item, one high school teacher had a process for students to report the items that gave them trouble—students wrote these down on a white board as they entered the room. Those were the items that the teacher reviewed. Students also had homework buddies so that if they had extra time, they could begin doing their homework together. Students suggested both strategies.
Another teacher had her students list on a strategy board the things that helped them learn particular concepts. A regular part of the day focused on "what works" and on "what doesn't work as well." For example, one of the class's goals was that every student would earn 90 percent or better on the weekly vocabulary test. To help ensure this, the students decided to take their words to the lunch room and study them together after they finished eating. The weeks they used that strategy, the class met its goal. So the strategy went on the strategy board.
All This—And More
Of course, in addition to the characteristics I've mentioned, effective teachers display professionalism, are exceptional communicators with all stakeholders, and don't watch the clock. As I sit here rocking on my porch, I count myself fortunate to have known so many of them.
Susan Allred has spent 37 years in education, as both a teacher and administrator. Currently retired from public education, she now serves as an education consultant;
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