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What Makes a Great Teacher?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is preparing to invest $45 million on research to discover what makes a teacher great. This week, retired teacher James D. Starkey offered his list of ten qualities in an Education Week column. I am going to offer my own suggestions here, and invite you to offer yours as well, but first I must make an observation about the hubris involved in this enterprise. Our definition of what makes a teacher great is a Rorschach test revealing our own philosophy of education. So the most important part of this process would be an in depth review of our cultural values to determine what education should be, because a great teacher is only great in the context of these expectations. And what is great in one setting might be disastrous in another. Our current system of measuring student achievement missed this step and we are paying a huge price as a consequence. We should not make the same mistake in defining teacher quality.

So I offer my own suggestions, explicitly stating the values that drive them.

First Value: The Interests of our Students come First
Great teachers place the interests of their students first. That means they consider their future lives when making decisions about how and what to teach them. They look at each of them as an individual and try to shape that child's experience to help him or her succeed. I just heard a wonderful story on This American Life (in the episode titled "2010") about a child named Lewis, who was struggling earlier this year. Typical 6th grade boy troubles - difficulty focusing on his work, distracting classmates, etc. Then one day he asked for five minutes of "Lewis time" in front of the class. A light bulb went on for his teachers, who from that day forward, would allow him five minutes every morning to hold forth, sing songs, tell stories from home, and teach the class whatever he wanted. But only if he earned it the day before. With this connection, he became far more able to focus and learn. We need to be constantly on the lookout, as teachers, for that hook that we can use to engage, motivate and focus our students. And we should evaluate every choice we make to see what is in their best long-term interests.


Second Value: A Passion for Learning
Great teachers needs to be able to transmit to their students a passion for learning about the world. Whatever the subject, we need to make it come alive in our classroom. We are not learning because something is on a test. We are learning because this is fascinating! Each of us has our own special area of passion - it might be music, or math, or biology. If we are lucky we get to spend time sharing that excitement with our students. A great teacher finds ways to build on that and take the students deep into the subject. I love turning students on to evolution, and I have a whole collection of fossils, including a genuine dinosaur egg, that I bring to class for the students to hold in their hands. That spark is infectious and is a precious thing. Great teachers feed those sparks and keep them burning by ongoing involvement in their subject - as a science teacher taking part in field research or real laboratory work, as an English teacher reading and writing literature, or a history teacher conducting research into the past. And the best thing is when we can connect our students to this work in real ways, getting them involved in projects where they are interviewing elders for history class, or doing field research themselves.

Third Value: Community Building
Each classroom of students is either a collection of 32 individuals, or a community of learners actively supporting one another. A great teacher can build a functioning community that learns together, and the students who are a part of that community will learn a great deal more as a result. They will learn more of their subject matter, because they will share their knowledge and help one another, and they will also learn the precious skill of collaboration. A great teacher knows how to structure teamwork so that individual effort is still required and recognized, but the groups nonetheless produce work that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Great teachers extend their sense of community beyond the walls of their classrooms, to collaborate with peers across the school and district -- and even country. They share curriculum, project ideas, and other resources, and actively collaborate with peers to conduct teacher research, do lesson study, or serve as mentors.

What do you think? What values and characteristics come to mind when you think of the great teachers you encountered in your life? What do you do that makes YOU great?


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