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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Consulting in Independent Schools

Many of the students I work with attend private, independent schools, and the Philadelphia area is blessed with a large variety of high-quality schools.

For students who learn differently, the atmosphere of the school they attend has much to do with their sense of success. It has been my observation that atmosphere is established in either a top-down or a bottom-up manner.

The students I currently work with are all in high school, and this is what I have observed about their teachers:

  • they have generally been open to ideas and suggestions for better serving struggling students;
  • at the secondary level, they typically have had interesting and enriching experiences with developing their abilities to teach content to students;
  • very often, they have had little training or sustained professional development about learning differences.

Sometimes, the experience of working with a struggling student has inspired teachers to promote greater faculty-wide understanding that how students learn is as important to consider as what students learn. These teacher-leaders are critical to creating the right atmosphere for students.

As a private tutor, it is gratifying to serve as a link in the chain. Consulting with a classroom teacher provides an opportunity to spread the credo that kids have ‘all kinds of minds’.

Next time, we’ll look at the role of a school’s administration.