By JEFFREY L. MITCHELL
What do you hold sacred about your children’s education?
Of course, it varies among parents. But are there commonalities regarding what parents hold in high regard?
Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, based on my experience as an educator and parent, I’ll explore what I believe are critical overarching features of a quality educational experience. I’ll cut a large swath across the educational landscape, in the exploration of what I think are the essential features of a quality education.
The previous four articles in this series have focused on care / connection, mission, communication, optimal conditions for learning. This fifth article in this series shines the light on what might be some important features of great teachers.
“Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, caliber, and future of an individual. If the people remember me as a good teacher, that will be the biggest honour for me.” — A. P. J. Abdul Kalam
What makes a great teacher?
Well, to start … they need to be as brilliant as Einstein, as socially adept as Oprah, as patient as Job, as driven as Michael Jordan, as funny as Robin Williams, as insightful as Freud, and as giving as Mother Teresa. As the saying goes, “God on a good day.”
Although somewhat facetious, I do not feel I am too far off the mark. It does sometimes feel teachers need to be all things to all parents. In fact, the scope of qualities that might be included to describe great teachers is vast. And, it is very fair to say that great teaching looks, at least a little, different for all of us.
Are there not commonalities worth noting?
That is the essential question I asked 25 years ago when I was doing my Ph.D. thesis. My conclusion, after several years of work, was that there are indeed a vast array of elements, but they can be sorted into three general boxes. Great teachers:
- Are knowledgeable in their subject area and with the pragmatics/skills of teaching;
- Are socially astute in the education setting;
- Are always willing to explore / consider / implement different ways to enhance their practice.
Based on my experiences as an educator for 23 years, including countless conversations with parents, what follows is a more specific list of elements that distinguish great teachers, although far from exhaustive, it does at least establish a foundation for describing what great teachers do.
Each of the elements below falls into one or more of the “boxes” above.
Expectations. Research has shown again and again that when teachers expect their students to succeed the students are far more likely to succeed. The effect is powerful, often working to enhance learning of students buoyed by the teachers’ expectations. But the effect can mute learning when teachers bring low expectations to the classroom. For example, historically the performance of girls in science and math classes has been dampened due to the lower (usually unwitting) expectations of teachers.
Classroom management. Put 20-30 students in a room for several hours a day and then ask them to sit still and focus. The structure of school was not really designed in alignment with how human children like to learn. Watching a great teacher make it seem like human children are OK with this structure is testament to their classroom management skills.
Feedback. Great teachers truly understand the importance and role of feedback. If I had to choose one element that would be reasonably easy to implement but would make the biggest difference in classrooms it would be feedback. Whether it’s teacher-to-student or teacher-to-parents, systematic, ongoing, thoughtful and specific feedback is a classroom game-changer.
Variety. Great teachers understand that instructional variety is very learner friendly. Our brains like to and learn better from receiving information in a variety of ways.
Relationships. Teachers that establish rapport and build meaningful relationships with their students will get their students absolute best effort. At Currey Ingram’s graduation, each of our seniors gives a short speech. Inevitably, what rings loud and clear from the testimonials of our students is that their teachers connected in a meaningful way with them.
Ongoing professional growth. The classroom is not only a reflection of society but it should also be a shaper of society. A “relevant” place where students are learning how what they are doing in the classroom are important to what they are witnessing in society. Great teachers stay relevant via an ongoing and rigorous pursuit of professional growth.
When you think of the great teachers in your life or the life of your children, what comes to mind? I welcome your thoughts on this or any other Extra Credit topic.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, Tennessee.