May 4, 2011

What Makes A Great Teacher?

Courter Shimeall is currently pursuing a dual degree in law and public policy at Ohio State. Prior to being a student, he taught middle school English for two years in Watts, California, and then worked for Teach For America in recruiting for several years. Courter stays active in issues regarding educational inequality. He is an alumnus of the College of Wooster (B.A.) and Loyola Marymount University (M.A. Ed.). He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, Angela, who is a public school teacher.
It's a question we either hear or ask often: "Is s/he a good teacher?" And even though we’ve all had "good" or even "great" teachers, my hunch is that we rarely think about what it actually means to qualify as a "good teacher" in the eyes of students, former students, teaching peers, and parents. So in honor of teacher appreciation week, I've reflected on just what makes our best teachers so great.
Involvement, effort, and dedication
When I reflect on great teachers I've had, or on great teachers with whom I taught, there's one thing that unites them all: they were involved. Whether it was coaching, running after school programs and clubs, or attending concerts and games, some of the most beloved and best teachers I've known were ever-present in their students' lives.
This ever-presence is even more important for the actual inside-the-classroom component of education. Of course, most of our teachers were physically present on a regular basis. But I'm thinking specifically about the ones who came early and/or stayed late; the ones who were clearly dedicated to their craft; and the ones whom I saw in the back of other classes observing peers to improve their own approach. This kind of effort communicates tacitly yet clearly that a teacher is dedicated to his or her students.
Perhaps more importantly, these were teachers who were leading by example. The involvement, the effort, and the dedication are great examples to students of positive work habits and how to take a professional approach to one's craft. Students who have teachers who are present and who work hard know that their teachers care about them, and almost always reciprocate the effort and the focus.
Accessible curriculum
We can all remember the classes we dreaded. Canned curriculum. Worksheets with matching or word-finds. Not to say that this wasn't okay every once in a while, but it fails to engage students as a general practice.
Contrast the above with the teachers who actually engaged you in the curriculum. The beauty of this is that there's no one way or "right" way to do this. It's the high school history teacher who tells stories about the Punic Wars that are so vivid and so engaging that you feel like you can actually see the battles unfold. Or the English teacher who always connects the material to his or her students' lives; whether reading "To Kill a Mockingbird", "Always Running", or any other great piece of literature. Or it's the science teacher who leads her students in preparation for a robotics or engineering contest.
In some way or another, the best teachers I've had and observed find a way to engage their students in the curriculum they teach. Invariably, the approach is practical, interdisciplinary, and fluid. And invariably, the kids always love going to class.
A fundamental belief in students
For the most part, what makes or breaks a student is a general sense of self-confidence and, specifically, the confidence to overcome challenges and reach for more. And if I think back on the most important characteristic of the most influential teachers I've known, it's that they believed in their students.
This comes through in a number of ways. For example, some great teachers communicate this belief verbally. It's no surprise that students who hear encouragement before tests, are actually told that they’re smart, and are actually told how capable they are end up becoming people who believe in themselves. And for those who don't believe in sappy praise, I've seen great teachers communicate this through their actions, taking the form of the teacher who pushes you to write one more rough draft when you thought you were done, or the form of the teacher who consistently assigns the most challenging work. Actions often speak louder than words in the education profession. And teachers who push their students to get better communicate that they believe in their students enough to make them better.
This is obviously a less than scientific analysis. But in reflecting back on those teachers who helped you get to where you are today, I'm willing to bet you'll remember that they embodied at least a few of the above characteristics. The reflection has also helped me realize once again just how important it is that America has a diverse pool of strong teachers, so that every student -- from the suburbs, rural America, or an urban environment -- has the opportunity to experience what it's like to have a great teacher.

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