What Makes an Effective Teacher?

By Guest Blogger: Donna Smart Isaacs, Teacher & All Kinds of Minds Facilitator

Two years ago, I moved from Vermont to Maine, accepting a teaching job in a two-room K-8 island school. In the process, I was required to take two standardized national competency tests (i.e., PRAXIS tests). Nearly 30 years of professional experience and expertise in the field of education—and my eligibility to teach in the state of Maine—were reduced to 240 multiple-choice questions.

Achieving a successful exam score was dependent on my knowledge of labels describing errant behaviors (e.g., pica—“eating everything in sight”) or facts I could easily find by pressing a button on my computer (e.g., identify and locate the origin of Buddhism on a map). Despite passing both tests, I left feeling insulted, angry and disillusioned with the state and future of education. The tests measured nothing more than my ability to perform on “high stakes” multiple-choice tests. I wondered—Is this the norm to which we’ve also reduced our students and schools?

Recently, my daughter returned home from her first semester of college explaining to me why she was satisfied with a “B+” in a course for which she had worked very hard to achieve an “A”: “I loved the course”, she said. “I performed well in all the class discussions and on all my papers, but I did poorly on the quizzes. I’m happy, though, because that tells me I understood the material. I might need to look up an author or a term, but I’m OK with that. I know how to do that.”

I felt proud of my daughter’s conclusion. A more common response I have encountered from students when they experience a task that seems meaningless and/or impossible is, “Why bother?” How many of our students become disillusioned and discouraged after a poor performance on a test? How often does failure result in a defeatist mindset being established and/or reinforced, turning a student off to school, or worse—to learning? (Greene, 2008) Likewise, being an effective teacher has little to do with performance on standardized tests.
I believe the following characteristics are essential for effective teaching:

  • Advocacy for students’ rights to equal access to learning outcomes
  • Modeling thirst for knowledge and desire for self improvement
  • Provision of a moral yardstick through both instruction and example (e.g., exhibition of respect)
  • Desire and ability to share experience and expertise—contribution to the professional development of others, and willingness to learn from colleagues, including 21st century skills
  • Creation and maintenance of an environment that feels simultaneously stimulating and safe to children
  • Understanding how people learn in general, and how individual students learn in particular; ability to leverage neurodevelopmental strengths and affinities to overcome areas of struggle (Levine. 2001, 2002)
  • Knowing the needs of the community; incorporating community service in learning tasks on local, national and global levels
  • Clarity and communication of purpose; ability to make learning tasks as authentic and meaningful as possible
  • Asking the right questions, and asking “higher order” questions that move students from “knowledge and understanding” to “application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation” of ideas (Bloom, 1954)
  • Establishment of collaborative partnerships with parents, colleagues and students

Effective teachers possess a combination of skills, knowledge and talent (Buckingham & Curt, 1999). Skills can be studied, observed, imitated, practiced—and even perfected. Knowledge can be learned from concerted study and/or experience. Talent, however, combines practice and hard work with passion. Talent includes fostering instincts and intuitions, creativity and self-knowledge. The ability to engage students in the moment with a tone, gesture, rhythm, song or a sparkle of humor—is not included in college teacher preparation programs, nor can it be assessed by the Educational Testing Service’s multiple-choice PRAXIS tests.

In order to attain a shared vision of what makes teachers effective, we must agree on what it is we want our students to accomplish. Effective teaching and learning are not achieved through studying cookie cutter recipes. Likewise, we must resist the temptation to trivialize practice and performance measures by reducing them to standardized “competency” tests. Our goal should be to attract and retain passionate, effective teachers who possess the characteristics listed above and more—who will teach our nation’s children with necessary skill, knowledge and talent, and who will cultivate students’ potential to access and participate in 21st century global society.

Visit ReThink Learning Now to read about other perspectives on teacher effectiveness.

About the Author: Donna Smart Isaacs was a Special Education teacher for 15 years prior to working for 5 years as a senior learning specialist at the Center for School Success in West Lebanon, NH.  She is a national facilitator for both the School Reform Initiative and the All Kinds of Minds Institute.  She currently lives on an island off the coast of Maine, where she teaches in a two-room K-8 school.

Wanted: Revolutionaries to Transform the Teaching Profession into the Learning Profession. Apply Within!

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

The Teachers of 2030,” in the May 2010 issue of Educational Leadership, is a thought-provoking article about the future of the teaching profession. Authors Renee Moore and Barnett Berry draw attention to the fact that an important voice is missing from current education policy discussions – particularly those around teacher effectiveness and student learning – the teacher’s. They make a compelling case that we must bring the teacher perspective from the margins to center stage, and they provide insight into how practicing educators often have a more inspiring vision for changes that could better support learning than those who are currently dominating the microphone in today’s national education discourse.

The article’s Teachers of 2030 see what many of the futurists quoted in our book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds, describe. They envision a future where the Internet facilitates more “personalized learning,” where accountability systems are tied to individual student growth, where learning comes from both “near and far,” and where “teacherpreneurism” facilitates the deployment of educator expertise in new, varied, and creative ways. These ideas echo a similar vision suggested by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation in their 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, which contends that these changes are coming and will be here faster than most of us realize.

Underlying all of these futuristic ideas about the teaching profession is that it will – and must – transform into a learning profession. Thus, I challenge the teachers and other educators who have taken part in All Kinds of Minds’ work over the past decade to speak up and lend your voices to bringing about this transformation. Why? Because I believe this transformation is what will broadly enable breakthrough knowledge about learning variation to help our most complex learners find success, and at the same time help us re-invent education for the benefit of all.

So how do we begin to create a learning profession? I invite you to spend some time this summer reflecting on this question – and engaging with us and with each other in a conversation about it.

Here are some ideas to get this conversation started:

  • Take 15 minutes and watch Sir Ken Robinson’s recent TED talk, in which he suggests that we are facing a second climate crisis — one that involves human resources instead of natural resources. He argues that we make poor use of talent and that schools are the biggest contributor to dislocating people from their talents. He notes that as with natural resources, we often have to dig deep to discover individual talent resources. Sir Robinson asks, “Can we start a learning revolution to end the human resource crisis?”
  • Stacy Parker-Fisher, program officer at the Oak Foundation, wonders about creating a “learning expert corps” modeled after Teach for America. “What would schools do if they had learning experts come in for a few years as part of their human capital systems? How would they use them?”
  • Karen Triplett, an All Kinds of Minds facilitator in North Carolina, dreams of running a summer “Mind Camp” for students. “Imagine: It would be an experience where everyone would discover their learning profiles. They would unearth their talents and strengths, claim their passions and affinities, and learn strategies for dealing with the things they just aren’t wired to naturally do well.”
  • A California charter school featured on John Merrow’s Learning Matters launched a brilliant idea for the last six weeks of school following end-of-year testing. Teachers are given the freedom to teach what they love and create “selectives” for students. Student groups put on a theatrical production, take part in a local government initiative, delve into a genre of literature, create instructional media games. Teachers and students alike get to pursue what they love to learn and do, and it’s a great way to discover talents and affinities.

What steps can we pledge to take as today’s learning revolutionaries? How can we work toward making the understanding of an individual’s learning profile the foundation for each student’s educational trajectory? In what other ways can we bring a stronger focus on using affinities and passions to guide a student’s mastery of key tasks, processes and scholarship?

Raise your voice. Become a revolutionary. Post a comment here or our Facebook page. Create a YouTube presentation and share it with us. React to these ideas and offer up your own. Share what you think we need to do to transform the teaching profession into the learning profession.

Parents and Students Remind Us What Effective Educators Look Like. Is Washington Listening?

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

Two iconic educators—Jaime Escalante and Brian Betts—passed away this month. Known for their work in struggling schools (Garfield High School in Los Angeles and Shaw Middle School in Washington, D.C.), they shared a belief that students in low performing schools can find success as learners and a passion for doing the hard work to make that happen.

“Ganas. That’s all you need—ganas,” Escalante once stated, touting “desire to succeed” as the most important ingredient for Los Angeles barrio kids’ success.

“Nothing I’ve ever seen trumps personal relationships,” declared Brian Betts in a 2008 Washington Post interview about how he intended to turn around Shaw.

Relentless dedication to knowing their students and uncovering individual potential earned both educators high praise from parents and students. Unfortunately, the current national ideas on evaluating principal and teacher effectiveness and turning around low student achievement in schools do not incorporate such indicators.

I had the privilege of meeting Jaime Escalante in 1988, during a promotion for the movie “Stand and Deliver,” where told the story of how dozens of his Hispanic students passed the AP calculus exam. He spoke about the “ganas” it takes for educators to achieve such results. Escalante spent eight years building the math program that led to the story highlighted by the movie. He forged relationships with the principal, a core team of faculty, the community, and the feeder schools, and—most importantly—he succeeded in making math “cool” among students. As a result, his students wanted to succeed, not because of an innate interest in calculus, but because of a student-teacher relationship based on respect for learners and learning.

Under the Obama administration’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing ESEA, a principal like the one who supported Escalante’s dream of high achieving Hispanic math students would be drummed out after five years, and a teacher like Escalante would probably be replaced. Garfield was and remains a low performing school. The overall test scores for the school are still abysmal by state norms. Escalante didn’t even teach his first calculus course until his fifth year, when five students completed the course. His unorthodox teaching methods that produced the stellar results on the AP test were far from a “research-based instructional program” that would today be required at Garfield.

Turning around low performing schools is clearly an urgent need, yet Escalante’s story reminds us that transforming such a school to a beacon of learning takes time, hard work, and the persistence of many. I wonder how many stories like this never unfold due to the current turnaround policy, with its focus on immediate test score increases.

Which brings me to Brian Betts. Educators rarely make national news for doing something wonderful, so the media attention around this young principal’s tragic death stands out. The hundreds of tributes on the D.C. Public Schools website provide us with a glimpse of Betts’ effectiveness as an educator.

Parents and students alike identified Betts’ central success: he really knew each student. “He called my daughter by name; he was the first principal to do that.” “He knew something special about each student.” “He recognized and appreciated the uniqueness about each one of us, even the not so pretty.”

Was Brian an effective principal? He was in his second year at Shaw; test scores actually declined after his first year to 29% proficiency. Yet people believe he was going to make a difference—based on the data they had about the trust, relationships and respect for students he was building as a foundation for academic achievement.

Betts understood critical success factors for student achievement that remain elusive to our policy makers. You need to know learners and learning as deeply as you know the content you are going to teach to students. Research suggests that this knowledge could contribute more to student success over time than the test scores that federal policy would use to determine an educator’s effectiveness. This is not to suggest that academic growth shouldn’t be measured and be a part of educator evaluation. But in ignoring how well educators know and care for individual students, we are failing to capture the effectiveness data about what matters most to students: parents and teachers.

Teacher Appreciation Week is a time when parents and students recognize and reward teachers for their hard work and the lasting influence they have on individuals, not for composite test scores. This is the kind of evaluation that feeds the “ganas” within the teaching profession. I invite you to join me in expressing my appreciation for the teachers who excel in knowing their students, as Brian Betts and Jaime Escalante did.

Rosie O’Donnell explains how to “attune a child.”

By Mary-Dean Barringer, All Kinds of Minds CEO

It took Rosie O’Donnell less than three minutes to describe an educational approach advocated by the All Kinds of Minds Institute. The New York Times shares a video where O’Donnell, and her son, talk about how they pinpointed the root of his learning struggles. It’s the best description of the “attuning a student process” I’ve found! (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/little-known-disorder-can-take-a-toll-on-learning/?8dpc)

Ms. O’Donnell’s notices the offbeat way her son responds to particular situations. “He hadn’t learned how to learn yet.” With careful observations, she and others were able to determine the specific breakdown—an auditory processing weakness. Blake was then able to get the targeted interventions and instructional support strategies he needed. Ms. O’Donnell helped him—and his siblings—realize he was not dumb; his brain was just wired differently.

And ask her son what he thinks and he’ll tell you, “It took a lot of work for me to get this smart but now I am smart.”

But Ms. O’Donnell says that process is not just about better grades. “It definitely affected his whole world,” she said of her son. “Not just learning. It cuts them off from society, from interactions. To see the difference in who he is today versus who he was two years ago, and then to contemplate what would have happened had we not been able to catch it — I think he would have been lost.”

At All Kinds of Minds we know that students differ in how they are “wired” to learn, and that the observations of these individual learning profiles – including strengths and weaknesses – can be better understood through knowledge of the brain activities that affect learning.

Our research shows that when educators have an understanding of this knowledge – along with tools and strategies for applying it in their classrooms – they are more effective teachers. They look at students differently. They make better observations about their students and where they are having trouble. They better understand why students are struggling. And they know how to target instruction to help the Blakes in their school.

And the result is exactly what Ms. O’Donnell and Blake share with us–hope, possibility, optimism, belief.

For the students it translates into a belief in themselves as smart learners. For the teachers it translates into optimism that all they can help all students learn. For the parents it translates into hope for a successful life for their child. And for us at All Kinds of Minds, it reminds us of the possibility that all of us just might be able to transform education, even if it starts with a child at a time.

Beyond Test Scores: The Missing Link in ‘No Child Left Behind’

By Mary-Dean Barringer, All Kinds of Minds CEO

The U.S. House Labor and Education Committee will hold a hearing in Washington D.C. on April 14 to examine how the use of data systems in schools across the country can help improve educational outcomes. This is a critical part of looking at how they will reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Snooze. Wake me up when Congress decides to hold a hearing on how good data—and the right kind of data—can help improve student learning.

Accurately measuring growth in learning requires that we develop rich data portraits of learners. There is clear value in taking periodic snapshots of student progress that formative and summative tests provide. These snapshots can identify academic “hot spots” and red flags that indicate a weak skill area. But as a nation, we’ve overlooked the importance of supplementing test data with the qualitative observations that often unmask the root of learning breakdowns or discover previously unseen talents. These observations can be critical to creating pathways to student success.

We know from research that minds are uniquely wired, creating individual learning profiles. Neuroscience and developmental perspectives inform the assessment that can occur when educators dig a little deeper to know their students as learners. There are many observational protocols that provide multiple sources of qualitative data. This creates a rich description of evidence to better inform instructional decisions, as we describe in Chapter 4 of our book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds.

But my guess is that no witness invited to the hearing will discuss this type of innovation that we need in our assessment practices. And that’s too bad, because we might have started the discussion of our need for the new NCLB—Now, Children Learning Better.

Contact your House representative to help them understand the importance of looking beyond test scores to measure student learning.

Building Teacher Professional Judgment by Mary Jo Dunnington, Vice President, Strategic Partnerships at All Kinds of Minds

Reading Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, I was encouraged at the ideas explored for helping those in the teaching profession become even better at what they do. As Green’s article notes, so much of the recent conversations about human capital in education among reformers have been around the pipeline – getting talent into our classrooms – and getting ineffective teachers out. But as she highlights, there is much that individuals can learn to make them more effective when they step in front of their students – and much that is not a part of the deliberate preparation regime for the vast majority of individuals who enter this profession.

I was struck that underlying both Lemov’s Taxonomy and Ball’s Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching is the recognition that an effective teacher can – and must – learn how to respond to the actual human beings sitting in their classrooms. Lemov’s techniques demonstrate there are behavioral, engagement-oriented signs that teachers can look for in students, and specific strategies they can employ based on what students are doing. These are not 49 one-liners that teachers can use to develop a routine that they perform for students. Similarly, Ball’s finding that content expertise is important – but deep content understanding alone does not a great teacher make – underscores that effective teaching involves observing the mistakes – the struggles – of students grappling with a subject, and drawing on an understanding of how students learn a subject in order to adjust explanations, examples, and practice.

In medicine and other fields, we would talk about this as professional judgment – the ability to draw on deep subject knowledge, the learned ability to observe and diagnose, and wisdom derived from practice (your own and others’) to produce the best outcomes for the person you are working with.

Here’s hoping that these important ideas continue to become a growing part of how we think about and define effective teachers – and that forward-thinking policymakers will accordingly recognize the absolutely crucial role of high-quality professional development to help us build the teaching force our students need and deserve.

Want to Improve Learning? Just Ask. By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

It’s hard to resist the temptation to make a few New Year’s resolutions each year—resolutions that typically focus on something we want to change to improve ourselves. We look to people we admire for their success (whatever that might mean to us—popularity, wealth, fitness, power, balance) for our inspiration. Rarely do we contemplate that a role model’s current success may have resulted from his or her own resolve to conquer a lifetime of challenges. Yet for so many of today’s successful adults, the road involved taking a long-haul view—and looking to others for help over hurdles along the way.

I’ve learned a great deal about resolve from many of the successful individuals who have been involved with All Kinds of Minds. Two individuals in particular come to mind. For both, as students who struggled in school, a promising adult life seemed elusive. Both of them have written terrific books that can inspire those who are helping students “stuck” in a learning struggle chart a roadmap for long- term success.

Paul Orfalea’s story has been highlighted by Fortune magazine as an example of the many CEOs who struggled with learning as children. Paul, who founded Kinko’s, recounts his journey from a student on whom most educators gave up to successful businessman in his autobiography, Copy This! Paul also graciously agreed to reflect on this journey in the forward to All Kinds of Minds’ forthcoming book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds: Boosting Student Success by Embracing Learning Variation.”

All Kinds of Minds trustee Gary Cohen also struggled with learning issues throughout school. His neurodevelopmental profile shows weaknesses in aspects of memory, grapho-motor skills and attention. Gary, founder of the executive coaching firm CO2 Partners, recalls that these made school “devastating” for him. “If I had to sit and listen to a teacher talk and write down notes in order to get information in, I just couldn’t,” he says. “Of course I was grades behind as a result.”

Like Paul Orfalea, he benefited from parents who never gave up the search to find the educational services he needed. Gary also credits a handful of teachers throughout his schooling who helped him cope with his struggles and find joy in learning. He recalls how a teacher taught him to create pictorial images in his head to understand math. Gary became very good at math–an asset that gives him an edge as a businessman. “I can look at a company’s financials and actually envision the business from those statements,” he says.

Understanding how his mind worked—and what the stumbling blocks were—also enabled Gary to work around his learning weaknesses. He credits this as a main factor in his success as an entrepreneur and executive coach. “My strategy was to partner with the brainiacs,” he says. “I’d table up with the smart kids and get them to help me. And I learned how to ask questions.”

Asking questions helped Gary become a successful learner in two ways. “First, it helped with my attention issues—asking questions refocused me on the topic. Second, it helped me learn how to learn—how to seek out information in a way that I can internalize.”

This questioning skill is the subject of Gary’s recently published book, Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions, now in its second printing. “This isn’t just a book for people in business,” Gary notes. “It’s about leadership in any setting. I keep having parents tell me that they’ve used these ideas with their kids, and it has worked!”

The book’s primary message is that in any leadership situation, asking questions helps you uncover important information, create accountability and trust, and make better decisions—an idea that will resonate with educators seeking insight into and connection with complex learners. Indeed, asking questions of students, parents and other adults who are part of a learner’s life is critical to getting the needed data to make the best decisions about strategies for unique minds.

Paul’s and Gary’s stories are testimonies to the kinds of success that educators can help promote by using the All Kinds of Minds approach. They remind us why we should not give up on students who are struggling with learning differences—and they are examples of how the hard work and creativity required to overcome learning weaknesses can ultimately contribute to success.

They also remind me that truly meaningful success rarely stems from a resolution to simply change or “fix” something we don’t like. So my resolution this year? Ask more questions.