Thursday, November 4, 2010

What Makes a Teacher Great?

In all this talk of education reform the one constant that most seem to agree on is this – a great teacher makes all the difference. But what IS a great teacher?

Is a great teacher…


…organized and well prepared?

…caring and thoughtful?

…knowledgeable of and truly interested in his/her content area?

…one whose students have improved their test scores?

…young and fresh?

…older and seasoned?

…someone with outside business experience?

…someone with a master’s degree or PhD?

…gifted and talented?

…a good listener?

…goal oriented and focused?

…a leader?

…a good follower of directions?

…a rebel?

…willing to change and improve?

…willing to be observed?

…an effective communicator with parents?

…a thorough planner?

…a hard worker?

…creative and inventive?

…a good team player?

…willing to think outside the box?

…one who keeps their students busy and quiet?

…one who allows noise and confusion in class?

…willing to work long hours?


…satisfied with their lives?

…able to achieve curriculum objectives?

…one who assigns a lot of homework or little homework?

…one who gives students choice and voice?

Think of all the teachers you’ve had in your life. Now think of the ones you liked the most, the ones you would consider to be great. The list is probably pretty short, but definite.

One teacher popped into my mind immediately, my high school Reading for College teacher, Dr. Caruso. Dr. Caruso was great in my mind for two main reasons.

1. She turned me onto the subject matter. I grew to love reading (boring!) Victorian era novels in her class.

2. She cared about me. She invited me into her classroom after school to chat about anything -- school, family, friends, religion… To this day we still exchange holiday cards.

So, what made her great? The class I took from her was an elective, one of my choice, therefore, I was interested in the subject matter even before I took the class. Yet I did learn a lot in her class, but I believe the MAIN reason I loved her as a teacher was because of her compassion. Quite simply, she cared about me.

Did other students in her class think she was great? Probably not. Or, I don’t know. Or, yes! It doesn’t matter because believing a teacher is great is a personal experience, unique to each student.

So, it REALLY irks me when I see federal or state educational programs (like, Race to the Top) that have a pay for performance stipulation. To qualify for Race to the Top funding, states must be able to link students test scores to teachers and must distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers.

Given that defining a teacher as great is personal, how can an effective teacher be measured? Here’s an idea written by a reader of this blog in January, 2010:

“I do think teacher quality is absolutely essential & pay should be linked to quality, but how you measure quality is the $6 million question. Way too easy to pin the whole thing on standardized test scores, which doesn't promote good teaching. How about 360-degree performance reviews, as businesses often use? Teachers would get evaluated annually by their principal, peers, students, parents, even submit a brief self-evaluation as part of the process ("how did I do this year?"). Test scores could factor in, to ensure that kids aren't completely missing the basics...but should be just a fraction of performance measurement, so that someone who's teaching to the tests but not really "growing" students wouldn't have an unfair advantage. Yes, a 360-degree system would be complicated, but technology could help. Some brave state [or school] needs to take on this challenge & work w/teacher union to pilot this kind of system, or something like it.”

To recap:

A great teacher is defined in a very personal way by each individual student.

A great teacher may or may not possess some of the attributes listed above.

A test score does not determine whether a teacher is great or effective.

If you agree, sign this petition from the Economic Policy Institute.

High quality teachers are essential components of effective schools. Determining whether or not a teacher is great or of high quality is a complicated and personal process. This determination should be made differently in each school, depending on the unique needs of the population of the school. That is, there is no one answer or program or easy fix to determine greatness of teachers. Nor should there be.

A final thought about great teachers --

Great teachers help students learn that what matters most is what matters most.

What qualities did your greatest teachers possess?


  1. Many times I’ve wondered why teachers are not subjected to the 360 degree system most of us in the business world live and die by. Bringing teachers into mainstream standards would help to redefine the job as a true profession. If tenure could also be eliminated it would really allow the great teachers to soar. Great teachers need great rewards. A standard business model such as this is the way to go.

  2. My favorite teacher, Mr. Josens taught writing. He came off as a mean old coot and said things such as "You are a bunch of teenagers, you haven't lived enough to know how to write creatively, so just write about what you know”. However, if you really cared about the subject, he would spend inordinate amounts of time helping craft a great piece of writing. In other words, he showed an unparalleled amount of interest as long as it was a two-way street. I recently met a very successful lawyer who happened to graduate from my high school 10 years before me (40 years ago). I mentioned Mr. Josens and he said “That man is the reason I went to law school”.

  3. Passion for either the subject matter and/or for "teaching" and compassion are the secret ingredients...when you love what you do it is contagious! My favorite teacher was my chemistry teacher...he made the elements come alive and it all made sense and it was fun. I studied chemistry in college too because of this teacher.

    It's brilliant to take the 'business' approach for teacher reviews and incentive programs. What an excellent idea. It's dynamic and compassionate to consider all the players involved in the review's exactly the way you want teachers to be towards their students! Keep the charge!

  4. Wow this is a tough one. It is such a personal experience. Asking my 14 and 19 year old what makes a good teacher, the first thing they usually say is, "they can't be a jerk." Hmmm, what does that mean? Number one they need to treat each student with respect i.e. no demeaning comments about teens or individuals, have some flexibility and faith that the students are not always lying (usually homework woes), and be approachable.

    They usually mention that the teacher needs to be organized and clear about the assignments and that the communication process is easy and accessible. Fair tests and relating the subject matter to their world is the cherry on top.

    They also note, if you do not like kids or are sick of them, STOP TEACHING!

  5. …entertaining? I've been told YES I am many times

    …organized and well prepared? Pretty well.

    …caring and thoughtful? Absolutely!

    …knowledgeable of and truly interested in his/her content area? Definitely.

    …one whose students have improved their test scores? Certainly.

    …young and fresh? Not so young, but definitely still fresh and full of ideas.

    …older and seasoned? Eighteen years teachers, eight year in 6th grade... starting to feel seasoned.

    …someone with outside business experience? Not a whole lot, but some.

    …someone with a master’s degree or PhD? Master's of Education; considering PhD.

    …gifted and talented? I'd like to say so...I feel like I use my gifts and talents with my students regularly. I always knew, from age 6, that I would be an educator.

    …a good listener? For sure.

    …goal oriented and focused? Set new ones every year, keep track of progress made towards them.

    …a leader? A leader of my students. In some aspects, a leader on campus with my colleagues.

    …a good follower of directions? Yes

    …a rebel? Yes!

    …willing to change and improve? Always.

    …willing to be observed? Yes.

    …an effective communicator with parents? Yes.

    …a thorough planner? A work in progress.

    …a hard worker? Totally.

    …creative and inventive? I've been told I am.

    …a good team player? I believe I am!

    …willing to think outside the box? I do that a lot!

    …one who keeps their students busy and quiet? If we are in the reading zone...

    …one who allows noise and confusion in class? Oh, yeah, lots of productive chatter in my room...

    …willing to work long hours? Beyond...

    …persistent? I will keep trying and trying...

    …satisfied with their lives? Yes, but there is always room for improvement.

    …able to achieve curriculum objectives? That's always a main goal.

    …one who assigns a lot of homework or little homework? Little, and essential, and purposeful.

    …one who gives students choice and voice? Without that, why be a teacher???

    Thanks for this reflective blog post, Kerry. I think back to my favorite teachers, and the same thread is sewn through each of them... they cared about me, their subject matter, and challenged me to be my best.
    Those are the reasons I became a teacher, and it's what I do every day: care about each one of my students, talk to them about their lives, support them academically so they really learn, not just to earn a grade,enjoy what I teach them, and challenge them to be their best while keeping their love of learning alive.

  6. Great entry, Kerry! I'm forwarding this to the science teachers in my department...the hardest working and most caring people I know (in any profession).

  7. Here's a great teacher: