Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

What makes a great teacher?

What Makes a Great Teacher?

The Jan/Feb 2010 issue of The Atlantic contained the article “What Makes a Great Teacher?” describing the conclusions from evaluation research that Teach For America (TFA) conducted about their programs and teachers:

TFA’s goal was to cut through the crap, so to speak, to find out why some of their teachers perform well while others don’t, despite the fact that all TFA teachers have the same training and were selected for the same criteria.  And while different teachers entered different schools in different regions of the country, outcomes couldn't be attributed to differences in schools or regions.  What TFA found was that good teachers prepared differently for their classes, acted differently with their students, and relentlessly, though productively, processed information about themselves and their work.

This evaluation culminated in the book, “Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap” (Jossey-Bass, 2010) and website (, and I’m thrilled that their conclusions align so closely with the 5 Teaching Best Practices that we use on our campus to organize our work with students.  Different context—K12 teaching with disadvantaged populations vs. higher education at a flagship research-intensive—but many of the same conclusions.

The TFA conclusions are that great teachers

  1. Set big goals for their students that are clear and ambitious.  Great teachers know exactly where they want their students to be by the end of the school year. The goals are clear to themselves and to their students.  We could all benefit by asking ourselves not only if we know precisely what we want our students to know by midterm and by the end of the semester or year, but if we're communicating those expectations clearly to our students.
  2. Invest their students (and families) with both “I can” and “I want”—that is, great teachers help their students both understand that they can do the work to meet the high expectations on them, and that their efforts will be worth it (that they want it).  This finding is supported by a ton of research in the area of academic self efficacy that shows the same thing:  increasing students’ self-efficacy (feelings of, and experiences with, confidence and agency in the academic domain) leads to better grades, higher retention, and increased learning.
  3. Plan purposefully.  Great teachers use “backwards design” to develop their plans and materials based on their big goals.  They use continual assessment to know whether they, and their students, are on track.  And they design their classroom environment and activities (readings, projects, assignments, in and out-of-class activities) to support the learning that they want to take place.
  4. Execute effectively.  Great teachers present their academic content clearly and efficiently, and frequently check for student understanding.  The more frequent the feedback, the better—both for students’ ability to track their progress and for teachers to know whether they’re doing their job.  Great teachers use classroom management and behavioral strategies to keep students focused.  Managing middle and high school classrooms is different from managing a college class, but the principles are the same:  we can ask ourselves how well we manage class or lecture dynamics in order to maximize student learning.  Moreover, how do we know whether or not we ARE presenting our content clearly and efficiently?  Student course evaluations are NOT the best way to know this, and instead, we could make better use of our colleagues by inviting them to sit in on your class in order to get their feedback.  The Teaching Academic has tips about how best to do this kind of peer review of teaching.
  5. Work relentlessly.  This one is a no brainer - great teachers continually work to make their teaching better.  What I like about how TFA describes this finding is that they emphasize that the relentless work needs to be productive: that great teachers are hard-nosed about their own strengths and weaknesses as teachers, they pursue their own professional development in focused and strategic ways, and they follow evidence-based best practices.  Just like what we’d hope from our students, actually:  that they’re working relentlessly, and productively, on their own learning.  No one gets an 'A' just for effort.

I really like these findings.  There isn’t a lot that’s earth shattering, but the straightforwardness of recommendations is refreshing.  Furthermore, their approach to this work highlights a basic principle that I completely believe:  that great teachers learn to be great, one’s not simply born that way.  We might start our teaching careers at different ability levels, but if good teaching was simply an innate quality, then all we need are better diagnostic tools to identify the great teachers during application.  Instead, we need to work on our teaching relentlessly, supported by good science, and within a community of like-minded colleagues.