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What Makes a Teacher Great?

Everyone agrees that the most important in-school factor in learning is the quality of the classroom teacher.  But who these inspired teachers are is the subject of fierce debate ("Four Ways to Spot a Great Teacher," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6).

The usual way to make a determination is to observe a teacher in action and then see if stipulated principles of instruction are followed.  But a teacher can follow every such principle and still be a flop.  Conversely, a teacher can ignore every principle and be a star.  I had student teachers who fell into both camps. It was impossible to predict which ones were which based on their SAT scores and GPAs.

How is that possible?  The answer is that there's a distinction between the science and art of instruction, in the same way that there's a difference between effectiveness and greatness.  If the latter, then we're talking about virtuosos.  I maintain that they cannot be produced by a school of education any more than a school of drama can produce a Brando or a school of music can produce a Mozart.  We can analyze their performances all day long and try to duplicate their behavior but still fall far short.

If the subject is effectiveness, rather than greatness, our odds are far better.  Yet even here, there are no guarantees.  I like to think of the matter as one of chemistry.  Some teachers are not able to connect with their students. There's something about their personality that stands in the way.

So far, I've been talking about cognitive outcomes.  But what about affective outcomes?  Aren't they every bit as important if the goal is to produce lifelong learners?  Yet no standardized test attempts to measure attitudes about the subject taught.  I took classes at the University of Pennsylvania, which I aced but hated.  I still have absolutely no desire to learn more about the subject.

Before concluding that great teachers can be identified by means of a checklist, however detailed, reformers need to attend class reunions.  I think they'd find that long after subject matter is forgotten students remember the relationships they had with their teachers.  This will not satisfy corporate reformers, but it is a reality.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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