4 Ways to Identify a Great Teacher

poetAuthor Dana Goldstein has compiled 4 characteristics of a great teacher. I don’t agree with them. My four would be patience, caring, engaging and self-motivated.

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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3 Responses to “4 Ways to Identify a Great Teacher”

  1. John Tapscott Says:

    What’s to disagree with except that only 4 characteristics is hardly an exhaustive list? They are not the only characteristics of a great teacher. Patience, caring, self motivation and engaging, likewise are only four characteristics. No doubt if we had the time we could compile an exhaustive list of characteristics that would run into, possibly, hundreds. It is unlikely that hundreds of such characteristics would reside in a single teacher.

    The point I am making is if you confine your list to only four you exclude many others, the value of which, may be incalculable. I think we must accept that teachers, like anyone else, are individuals, having both positive and negative characteristics. I recall a principal summing up the year on the occasion of speech night stating that the achievements of the year were due to the dedication and commitment of some of his teachers, which, of course, raised the question, which ones did he consider not dedicated and committed? I couldn’t think of one but quite clearly in this principal’s eyes some of his staff had characteristics which he didn’t value.

    This brings me to the principal that referred to some of his students as “morons”. Quite clearly he set a lower value on some of his students. I have had to work with all kinds of students and teachers. Some have been more difficult to work with than others. In spite of this each has an intrinsic value as a human being. Each has a contribution to make. And each is capable of growth. So each contributes but not always in the same way. Teaching, I have learned is a co-operative enterprise. In schools where the staff complement each others strengths there is a co-operative spirit and a collegiality and that is what makes a great school. I am not so convinced about competitiveness as it seems to me to bring out some of the worst characteristics of human nature.

    But what would I know?

    • Michael G. Says:

      I felt exactly the same way trying to limit the list to 4. It seems lazy to have a list of 4 when there are so many different skills a good teacher brings to the table.

  2. Tatiana Says:

    I absolutely agree that a cooperative spirit is more useful than a competitive one. Not only does such an atmosphere allow people to use all the cultural capital available to the group, but it also demonstrates the boons of the system to students… in other words, if teachers and administrators can all support one another with varying strengths and weaknesses, it seems clear you also want to bring students into the collaborative process, not only so they can develop the same co-operational skills, but also to deepen their learning of whatever “official” subject matter– an active, communicating mind is a learning one!

    …I also think that this communication/collaboration-as-teaching method probably fits into all the 8-to-100 adjectives for a great teacher… For example, if you “believe intelligence is achievable, not inborn,” then you are more inclined to respect the skills that a student brings to the table, and further, to encourage the growth of those skills by challenging them in new ways. Another example might be that if you are going to willfully put yourself into a collaborative position with students, you sometimes have to use “patience” to wait for their conclusions and subsequent knowledge to formulate on its own, even if you have your own understanding of how to reach an answer.

    I’d love if people came up with and shared their own examples of how the aforementioned adjectives fit into the overhead concept of teaching as a collaborative effort. Also… not sure how “data driven” fits into the equation… any thoughts?

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, John Tapscott!

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