What Makes a Great Teacher?

What Makes a Great Teacher?

The best teachers are smart, knowledgeable and dedicated, but it is their ability to connect with students that truly sets them apart.

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If occupational passion had a face, it might look something like Michele Burrows, an eighth-grade algebra teacher at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School, a performing arts magnet in Silver Spring. Burrows has been standing before a blackboard for 30-plus years and still says, “I can’t wait to get up in the morning.” Watching her in action, you believe it. Like an overbooked waitress, she bounces around the room pinball-like, explaining quadratic equations, jumping from one student to the next, but somehow managing to give each her full attention. “Give me a big, juicy dot on the X axis!” she commands. She asks a question and goes visibly tense with anticipation for the answer. “What is the maximum vertex?” A hand shoots up. “Right! Good thinking! Good thinking, ladies and gentlemen!” She exclaims this with a little hop, and the students can feel her pride in them and her pure joy in seeing the proverbial light bulbs lit.

Perseverance? Burrows has it in spades. She is relentless in making sure her charges understand higher math. “Their success is my success,” she says. “I have high expectations. I expect them to work hard, but that’s because I want them to be the best they can be.” That means putting a heavy burden on herself, as well, giving her students time beyond the workday and lots of individual help. She does continual evaluations of their knowledge, keeps meticulous records and maintains a no-excuses policy for the completion of assignments. The students are all at different places, she explains, but they all must be prepared for the same major assessments. “They have to have the skills! They have to have the skills!” Burrows’ determination prohibits the students from wasting a second of instructional time, starting on day one. “At first, they hate it,” says Loiederman Principal Alison Serino, who worked hard to recruit Burrows from another MCPS school. The math teacher is well aware of that sentiment, but knows that her demands will pay off. She says, “I tell them it could be worse. I could be your mother.”

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on how to fix the nation’s underperforming schools. Smaller class sizes, revamped curricula, improved technology, better facilities, more rigorous testing—all have been advanced as ways to ensure that American kids are getting the education they need to realize their full potential. But at the end of the day, none of it amounts to much without the ingredient that matters most: the effectiveness of the person standing at the front of the classroom. A good teacher can overcome the obstacles of big classes, scant resources and reluctant learners. And a great teacher, according to Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, can impart a full year’s more information in the same time period than a bad teacher can. More important, he or she can inspire a child for a lifetime.

So what makes a great teacher? A sharp mind, yes; knowledge of subject matter, to be sure; general literacy, of course. Experience, training and the setting of clear goals and high expectations all count for a lot. But the qualities of pedagogical excellence that can trump all of those are perhaps the hardest to measure, and the toughest to judge outside the classroom. They are traits such as determination, responsibility, empathy and, most crucially, the capacity to make connections, both teacher to student and concept to concept. Add to those characteristics energy, intellectual curiosity and a sense of humor, and that might seem to describe a person who does not exist.

Except that she does. Montgomery County, known for its highly regarded schools, is blessed with scores of dedicated educators who meet that description—passionate, selfless, savvy instructors who day after day and year after year put up with distracted kids, demanding parents, long hours and relatively modest pay to teach the leaders of tomorrow how to reduce fractions and diagram sentences, mix oil paints and play the saxophone, engage with Einstein and debate the Bill of Rights.

Above all, great teaching is about making connections. Says Kristi Holmstrom, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Education: “If a teacher is just teaching content, it’s about getting through a list or getting through objectives regardless of whether there is learning going on. A good teacher pays attention to how children are learning, to whether or not there is some effect. Some people may not realize that there is a slight shift when you are not just teaching content but teaching children content.” That means getting into their heads, not just to understand how they differ, but to appreciate what they share. “Every lesson I plan, I try to picture myself as a fifth-grader,” says Jennifer Rushin, who teaches fifth grade at Chevy Chase Elementary School in Chevy Chase. “How would I get engaged? What would make me raise my hand?” Says Laura Myers, a longtime teacher at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, “My girls go on and grow up, and I stay in the fourth grade.” 

A good teacher does not lecture; he does not preach. A good teacher is, as the saying goes, a “guide on the side.” Someone, say, like John Zehner. An Advanced Placement government teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Zehner engages his students in a group project after they have taken their rigorous AP exams in May. In this case, they are pitching a mock real estate development to development professionals acting as a mock county council. There are some big ideas to be taught here about civic good and private gain: How to attract high-end tenants while still accommodating a homeless shelter; how to increase density without snarling traffic; whether to allow a big-box retailer. “The lesson is about making money for the county and themselves, and the conflicts that arise,” Zehner says. “It’s appreciating how tough it is to work with the whole process.” The students pose as site planners, neighborhood liaisons, financial analysts and marketing directors. Notably, Zehner and the council members ask the same tough questions of the students that they would of a real developer, thereby demonstrating another hallmark of good teaching: showing trust in and respect for students.

At Sandy Spring Friends School, teacher Eduardo Alejandro Polón put together a lesson for his AP Spanish class comparing the art of Francisco Goya to the works of Fernando Botero to help the students make connections and establish a historical thread between the Spanish Inquisition and the scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. It made for a powerful lesson about torture through the centuries, using graphic images and Milos Forman’s film Goya’s Ghosts. Again, Polón was challenging his students’ premises, going beyond the basic content, respecting the students as independent thinkers. “If the lessons we’re trying to teach our students don’t raise points of controversy,” he says, “then we are doing nothing other than pandering to the status quo.”

In a more elementary way, Pam DeCederfelt, a resource teacher at Loiederman, is relating to her middle schoolers with the unlikely activity of reading them a Dr. Seuss story, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Hers are the kids who are struggling academically, causing disciplinary problems and suffering from low self-esteem and other issues. The book is written for children, but as DeCederfelt knows, it also appeals to adults because it talks about obstacles and tough choices. In essence, it’s a motivational speech. “You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked,” she reads. “What do you think it means when he says we ARE the choices we make?” she asks, prompting a discussion. Then she reads: “And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” Maybe we have made some bad choices, she tells them, knowing they have. “But we can start fresh.” It seems odd, these almost-teens with the huge feet and budding breasts listening to a teacher read aloud from a picture book. But they are rapt, just as DeCederfelt knew they would be.

Doing whatever it takes

A good teacher knows many ways to make connections. Among them: understanding and accommodating different learning styles, knowing which students are visual learners, which are auditory learners and which engage best when they are moving around and doing things. This last element, kinesthetic learning, is especially apparent in the younger grades. Movement is the MO in Shalini Komal’s third-grade classroom at Sargent Shriver Elementary School in Silver Spring, where the lesson on this day is liquid measurement. She beckons her pupils to leave their desks and come sit on a rug, while she sits on a rocking chair and announces that she is going to tell them a story. As they listen quietly, she unfolds a tale about a “measurement garden” that not only entertains them, but, more important, serves as a mnemonic device for what they have learned. Coming to the carpet is a signal, she explains. “I bring them to the carpet as one cohesive group. They know when they come to the carpet [that] they are going to get information.” Later they break into groups to examine food containers and work with one another to put the lesson into practice.

Good teachers don’t just cover the curriculum, Holmstrom says. They also teach students to think on their own and become resources for one another. When Komal asks her pupils how many ways there are to make a gallon, she could simply say “4 quarts, 16 cups, 2 half gallons or 8 pints” when the students come up blank. But she makes them do the work. “You want them to find the answer on their own,” she says. “It does take more time, but they are learning from each other, empowering each other, and learning to build leadership in each other.” Further, when students offer ideas this way, she says, “so many things are revealed. It’s a great way to hear the misconceptions that students have.”

Lee Hand, a science teacher at Herbert Hoover Middle School in Potomac, knows that his students are not going to remember all the content in a course, but he considers his efforts successful if, in the process of imparting information about weather systems, he has taught them critical thinking and processing skills. “It’s more than the academics,” he says. “I want them to be part of an informed citizenry. I guess you could say I take a Jeffersonian approach.”

Teach For America, the organization that recruits high-achieving students from top universities to teach in urban and rural schools, recently identified seven traits common to teachers who produced the best results for students. In the No. 2 spot, after “high achiever,” the organization listed “responsible: Instead of blaming others or circumstances, the individual takes full responsibility for achieving a positive outcome.” Or, as DeCederfelt puts it: “It’s not them. It’s you.” That’s a hard admission to make, given the challenges that teachers face, even in the best schools. And many say it puts unfair pressure on educators. “I try to avoid the ‘heroification’ of teachers,” says Connie North, an assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Maryland College of Education. “To expect teachers to make up for [students’ problems]—it’s unjust to put that on the backs of teachers.” 

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