What Makes a Great Teacher

Last month, my daughter’s tenth grade math teacher told me that when students fail his tests, it’s his fault, not theirs. He takes it as a sign that he needs to figure out a different way of teaching the material.

You’d think that’s a no-brainer, but I think it’s the first time I’ve ever heard a teacher admit it was his duty to ensure that students learn the material. Too often, I hear that students are lazy, aren’t paying attention, need tutors, don’t do their homework, or that the curriculum is too broad and there aren’t enough resources.

He’s the best math teacher my daughter’s ever had. She thinks math is fun for the first time in a long time. Her teacher could have been featured in this article in The Atlantic Monthly, “What Makes a Great Teacher?”

While I don’t agree with everything in the article, it’s worth reading. I particularly liked this description of the qualities of a good teacher:

First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

5 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Teacher

  1. Ooh, I need to read that article, as the topic (what makes a great teacher) fascinates me & seems so crucial to ed. reform. I love the passage you pulled out–yes, yes, yes! Also, I think it makes a difference when teachers actually love what they do. They don’t have to love it every minute, but overall, it makes a huge difference when they are excited to come in with new ideas, new ways to solve problems–or even a repeat project that’s a proven student favorite year after year and just *works*.

    Our 12 y.o. has an amazing lit. teacher this year whose weekly email before winter break included these lines: “As I drive into work every morning, listening to National Public Radio stories about failing schools and joblessness, I give thanks for where I am heading. You provide me with a clean, safe, supportive environment in which I can focus on exploring literature and history with students. I cannot think of a better way to earn a living…” And you know, it SHOWS. Her love for teaching infuses the discussions she facilitates in class; the interesting projects she assigns; and her approach to testing & HW. (She finds ways to engage & focus kids’ energy while she has them, rather than dumping hrs of HW and rote-memory test prep on them in a misguided attempt to make up for their not having absorbed anything in class.)

    Thanks so much for bringing up this topic.


  2. Check out “What Makes a Great Teacher? Really? Really.” I think it’s on a blog called “My life untranslated.” I found it next to your link when I Googled the Atlantic article.


  3. My math teacher says that too! He also says that if his homework takes more than 20 minutes, you shouldn’t have to chug your way through it and that if you have a crazy day, you shouldn’t have your grade docked for it. He also says math isn’t natural. I almost cried and clapped when he said that.


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