– excellent teacher?

This month The Atlantic published a great in-depth article on what makes a great teacher. Naturally given that I had been thinking about that myself for a long time, I found it very interesting and certainly inspirational in itself. The article followed and interviewed teachers from Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that gives the opportunity to new graduates to teach for two years at a local poor neighbourhood school. The article is largely based on a report they issued on their experience and on what makes a great teacher.

Only today I was listening to others say they cannot motivate students because students are either motivated or not and there isn’t much you can do. You can guide them, they said, but hard to motivate. I am not totally sure I agree.  I think that  if one inspires a student, one may be able to motivate them as well.

So what does make an excellent teacher? by excellent, the article in The Atlantic was giving a criteria of getting higher grades than their peers in other classes or other schools for example. While I agree with this criteria, I also think that motivating them in life more than just about grades. In any case, while the article speaks of school-age children, the majority of the criteria applies to all levels of teaching including higher ed.

One comforting note the article makes is that “effective teaching is neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of  a dynamic personality nor dramatic performance.” This is good to know because it means it is not a ‘genetic’ disorder to be a bad teacher. 🙂  “Great teachers”, one of the ‘great teachers’ said “constantly evaluate what they are doing.” Yes. What a fabulous criteria that is. Constantly evaluating will, for sure, produce different results and make learning a more exciting and dynamic process. That is why teachers who are set in their ways and who refuse to change their method of teaching in any way, are such boring teachers.

A great teacher listens to the students – but never asks “do you understand” because most of the time, students THINK they understand or shy away from speaking up.  “Great teachers tend to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet.”  [my emphasis]. Yes indeed. Self-aware and humble. Arrogance, I believe, does not make a teacher see beyond his/her own shadow.

When asked whether he found his first year on the job hard, one teacher said “I found that the kids were not hard. You paint this picture in your head about how you will teach this lesson, and you can teach the whole lesson and no one gets it.”this is humbleness and an admission of his own failure to engage the students rather than putting the blame squarely on the student.

Duration of teaching or previous teaching experience do not matter. What does matter are usually the things we overlook. Some success predictors include a history of perseverance. In fact, Teach for America now interviews people and grades them based on their perseverance in the face of challenges they met in their lives. What an interesting criteria! One other very unlikely criteria is that teachers who scored high in ‘life satisfaction‘ and who said they were content with their lives, were 43% more likely to perform well in the classroom. “They may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students.”  Past performance, ‘especially the kind you can measure is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers.”

Believe it or not, the article quotes from the research that Teach for America made saying that “knowledge matters, but not in every case.” Ivy league grads and women teachers tend to be better teachers, but not always. Other criteria matter must be in the mix. I believe the part of ‘women teachers’ might apply more for regular schools  than for higher ed.

I think that only a minority of students are just hopeless in terms of motivation. Other factors are at play that may make the learning process unappealing or overwhelming or both. Yet the majority need the motivation and the engagement if given the opportunity. Some students are ‘lost causes’ – no matter what one does.  They just will not cooperate. Some students are just oppositional students who will hate what you do no matter what you do. There isn’t much that can be done about them. Move on. Do not let that hinder you from helping others.

After all, as educators, our role is to help and guide students towards achieving their goals.

Looking at all those criteria.. I am wondering if any more can be added. I certainly have my own list that I will post soon.