Perhaps you agree with Ms. Goldstein’s 4:
• Have active intellectual lives outside their classrooms.
Economists have discovered that teachers with high SAT scores or perfect college GPAs are generally no better for their students than teachers with less impressive credentials. But teachers with large vocabularies are better at their jobs because this trait is associated with being intelligent, well-read and curious.
In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois, who once taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Tennessee, wrote that teachers must “be broad-minded, cultured men and women” able to “scatter civilization” among the next generation. The best teachers often love to travel, have fascinating hobbies or speak passionately about their favorite philosopher or poet.
• Believe intelligence is achievable, not inborn.
Effective educators reject the idea that smarts are something that only some students have; they expect all children to perform at high levels, even those who are unruly, learning disabled or struggling with English.
How can you tell if a teacher has high expectations? Ask your child if he or she has learned anything new today. Research suggests that most students already know almost half of what is taught in most classes. Lame teachers—like one I watched spend a full 10 minutes explaining to a class in a Colorado Springs middle school that “denominator” refers to the bottom half of a fraction—spend too much time reviewing basic facts and too little time introducing deeper concepts.
• Are data-driven.
Effective teachers assess students at the beginning of new units to identify their strengths and weaknesses, then quiz students again when units end to determine whether concepts and skills have sunk in. Research from the cognitive psychologists Andrew Butler and Henry Roediger confirms that students score higher on end-of-year exams when they have been quizzed by their teacher along the way.
• Ask great questions.
According to the scholar John Hattie, when teachers focus lessons on concepts that are broader than those on multiple-choice tests, children’s scores on higher-level assessments—like those that require writing—increase. How can you identify a high-quality question in your child’s schoolwork? It tests for conceptual, not factual, understanding—not “When did the Great Depression occur?” but “What economic, social and political factors led to the Great Depression?”
Parents shouldn’t be the only ones looking for these four traits. Principals and policy makers should focus less on standardized test scores than on these more sophisticated measures of excellence. Together, we can create a groundswell of demand for great teaching in every classroom.
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