Monthly Archives: March 2013

What is great teaching?


What makes a great teacher?

It is a simple question, but there is no more important question that we can ask as educators.

Research, experience, and common sense teach us that there is no greater factor that influences outcomes for students than the quality of the teacher.  For my kids, I would take a truly great teacher in an open field over a mediocre teacher in a state of the art classroom with all of the latest tools and gadgets and unlimited resources to draw upon.  Although I think we could all agree that a great teacher is the most important factor in the classroom, we would probably have many different definitions of what makes a great teacher.  Teaching is both art and science.  It is complex, just like human beings are complex.  Regardless of what any politician might say, great teaching could never be boiled down to a single test score, but the pursuit of great teaching should be our guide in all that we do.

When I first started teaching a little more than 10 years ago, good teaching consisted of covering the adopted curriculum with knowledge and enthusiasm, and managing your classroom well.  If the principal came into your room and found students sitting at their desks, patiently raising their hands and supplying the right answers from the textbook, that was enough.  In today’s classroom, if that is what the teaching looked like on an everyday basis, it would be cause for concern.

A seismic shift is occurring in education today.  With the widespread adoption of the Common Core Standards, the Danielson framework for teaching, and continued efforts to implement RTI (Response To Intervention) a new definition of great teaching is emerging.  Coming to consensus on the elements in place in any great teacher’s classroom is absolutely vital to moving the quality of instruction in a school forward.

So what is great teaching all about?

  1. Great teaching is about relationships-All great teaching takes place in the context of a relationship and if you reflect back on teachers who have had an impact on you, I guarantee it started with the connection you had with that person.  Connections are the key to everything else in the classroom.  If connections with students are lacking, no matter how well the material is presented or explained, great teaching will not occur.
  2. Great teaching is about reflecting and learning-Gone are the days when I could hand you a teacher’s manual and you would be prepared to face your class.  Great teachers are utilizing technology, professional networks, and their colleagues to continually find the best resources for their students.  They reflect on their lessons and are always seeking to learn and improve with and for their students.
  3. Great teaching is about student learning-Although great teaching can’t be boiled down to a single test score or “value added” model, that doesn’t discount the vital role that data plays in the classroom of a great teacher.  Ultimately, teaching is about results.  All educators must maintain a laser like focus on student learning.  If students aren’t learning at high levels, teaching isn’t great.  Are there factors beyond a teacher’s control that impact learning?  Of course there are.  Does that mean that evidence and data aren’t vital to guiding our instruction?  Of course not!   
  4. Great teaching is about influence-Teaching in today’s world cannot be an isolated activity.  If a teacher is doing a great job within the 4 walls of their classroom, but does not have the vision or ability to lead others to do the same, I would argue that they are not yet a great teacher.  This isn’t easy, but the demands we face as educators today require more than just great individuals.  To be truly great, we must also be a great leader and teammate.  We must make those around us better for each student to receive a great education regardless of what classroom or teacher they are assigned.

Becoming a great teacher isn’t easy, but we must create common understandings and a culture that raises the bar.  Although it is tempting to see the initiatives mentioned previously as disconnected and separate, the common thread that runs through them all is responsiveness to students. Whether it is RTI, CC standards, or Danielson, the common thread is student centered education.  Are we teachers of content or teachers of students?  If our students fail, do we blame the students, or look within ourselves or our colleagues for the solutions?  Are we willing to do whatever it takes for students to succeed and bring others along with us for the journey?

I am grateful for the education I received although it looked very different than the expectations for the great teaching of the future.  Although I am anxious to move forward into a brighter future for our students, that in no way denigrates the hard work done by good teachers in the past.  The truth is that students have changed.  Even in the relatively short amount of time I’ve been in education, the world and our students have changed.  Just to put it in perspective, when I was in my first year teaching Kindergarten in the fall of 2002, the first Iphone was still 5 years from being a reality.  Imagine what the world will look like by the time today’s kindergartner enters the workforce 15 or 20 years from now!  How must we prepare them?  What would you say makes a great teacher?