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.

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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.

Adapting to New Realities

There is one particular area where independent schools can play a large leadership role over the next generation.

Because they are less encumbered by the laws and mandates that public schools face, independent schools can more readily adapt their programs to meet the needs of 21st century learners, digital natives in the parlance of the field. The sooner schools realize that the unbridled access to information provided by 2009 technology, the sooner they can teach to this new reality.

But we don’t just need change, we need effective change. Applying a simple solution to a complicated need only creates greater problems. We should not simply drop more technology instruction into an already bulging curriculum.

This is where using the AKOM framework can be a big help – the evolution of teaching should examine and address the ongoing neurodevelopmental needs of children. Schools must look at their evolution to the digital age of literacy through a student-centered lens.

But it is difficult to create an evolution while at the same time managing the day-to-day realities of running a school.

Armed with a deep knowledge of the AKOM framework and the experience of working closely with today’s learners, I hope my role as a consultant can help provide independent schools with a perspective on how to proceed during these fascinating and uncertain times.

AKOM and the Solo Practitioner

There are many roles an educator can play. For years I was blessed to work at the Center School, an independent school outside of Philadelphia. During my years there, our faculty completed the Schools Attuned Generalist Course, and another teacher and I trained to become course facilitators.

The school was a perfect setting for using a neurodevelopmental lens to develop my understanding of how kids learn – a common mission, supportive colleagues, and families who were committed to finding ways to better understand how their child learned. It is not surprising that my involvement with AKOM has deepened since my initial introduction years ago.

But now I find myself in a new role – reading specialist-at-large.

As a private practitioner, I perform many duties with students in a variety of schools, including tutoring, assessment, academic coaching and advising. The tutoring relationship lends itself to demystifying students and helping them to develop and implement workable management plans. In my experience, students are hungry to better understand themselves, and appreciate the opportunity to take ownership of their learning.

But working independently also presents challenges I never faced in my years at Center School. The biggest is forging a relationship with the teachers my clients have so that they can better understand the learning needs of their (and my) students.

Over the coming weeks in this space, I will be processing out loud some of the challenges that educators face when they are providing ancillary, rather than primary support to students.