Saturday, December 13, 2008

How to Identify Great Teaching

What are the qualities that truly set “star” teachers apart from their mediocre or average colleagues? If we could answer the above question accurately and guide teacher development along these lines powerful learning could take place.

Perhaps the single greatest factor in any school’s effectiveness is the quality of instruction that takes place. Well designed backward curriculum, deeply funded technology resources, and sparking state-of the art facilities are all rendered irrelevant by incompetent teachers. Even the much-haled small class size has less of an impact than high quality instructors. I’d place my own children in a room with thirty other students and a great teacher over a room with ten and an average teacher any day of the week.

As principals we are uniquely aware of all the side issues that go along with bad teaching. The constant phone calls, class drops, requests for preferential placement, and disappointed families could all be avoided by having a school filled with only high quality excellent teachers. Sounds dreamy doesn’t it? As principals, we all know when the phone rings and it is a call “not about playing time” that the concern is probably focused around the two or three worst teachers in terms of instructional quality.

Malcolm Gladwell in a recent article for the “New Yorker” comparing quarterbacks, financial traders, and teachers has highlighted one skill that is universally found with all excellent teachers: high quality personal feedback.

The quality of personalized feedback is perhaps the largest single indicator of classroom effectiveness. An example Gladwell sites from a Virginia study is shared below.

"Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe"

Gladwell goes on to raise the issue of whether teacher prep programs are valid in terms of these skills. The argument of whether good teaching is innate or can be taught is worth taking up. Take a minute or two and read the full article here: link to New Yorker article.

What has been your experience as a principal? What are the key characteristics you find that excellent teachers share? When you hire, how important are formal credentials like certificates and state mandated qualifications? Do you know of any metric to measure the quality of teacher feedback?


Souly Catholic said...

Great teachers do the following: great engagement levels with students, classroom culture that has high expectations with an atmosphere of mutual respect, they take their work more seriously than they take themselves, and love learning.

Anonymous said...

After having checked the necessary credentials that teachers must have in our state and interviewing the candidate with colleagues, I ask myself: "Is this person one that I would like to spend 180 days with in the next year? Does he/she seem interesting, enthusiastic, and/or knowledgeable about both students and their curriculum?"

Ed Shepherd said...

The quality of the teacher in the classroom is one of the most important things that I strive to increase, whether it is through hiring practices or through professional development of the ones I already have.
I have read two of Gladwells books already (Blink, Tipping Point) and this one is on the "To Do" list.