Friday, March 3, 2017

Finding the Good Teachers

Modern ed reform has always embraced a binary view of teachers-- there are good ones and bad ones. We should sort them out. Maybe find the good ones so we can give them a nice reward. Find that bad ones so that we can fire them.

The problems with this view are (or at least should be) obvious.

Teaching is a complex multi-faceted web of human relationships. And teachers are human beings, and therefor most of our skill sets are not static state, but plastic and variable under the influence of many variables.

I may be a bad fit for a particular group of students, or the dynamic in the room might be powerfully good. I might have a day, a week, even a year in which I am smoothly, powerfully firing on all cylinders or one in which I am lurching, barely fumbling along on a single stuttering piston. I may be working in a school where everything I could possibly need is at my fingertips, or one where I am thwarted at every turn. Every year, my students emerge from a different moment in history. Every year, I am a few steps further down the path of my own journey.

You know quote from Heraclitus-- "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” That river is a classroom (also, in a classroom, that man is probably a woman, but Heraclitus is a pre-Socratic Greek and as such is not very progressive).

So in a very real sense, trying to separate good teachers from bad is a fool's errand, like taking a 0.5 second sound clip from a recording of an orchestra and using it to evaluate the strength and depth of their entire repertoire.

Every person who ever set foot in a school can talk about the good teachers and the bad teachers that they had for class. The distinction can obviously be made. But that distinction is often made subjectively-- "Mrs. McTeachipants was a great teacher" is usually leaving out the phrase "for me." Could we all agree on what makes, say, an excellent spouse? I doubt it.

I've made all of this argument before, and as far as it goes I stand by it. However, I do not mean to suggest that good and bad teaching is so hopelessly hard to distinguish that we must give up and pretend that all teachers are interchangeable, that we can't distinguish between them in any meaningful way. We know that's not entirely true-- there are teachers out there who are mostly beloved, and others who are mostly not. While we can't reduce good teaching to a simple checklist, there are some broad characteristics that make it more likely that the teacher in question does teaching well.

Know the Material

Better teachers know what the hell they're talking about. This may seem obvious, but it's not. For instance, how many teachers are out there teaching writing even though the last time they did any kind of writing was in a college class. Teachers do a better job when they know their stuff, when they've been studying up constantly throughout their entire adult lives. Teachers do a better job when they are constantly maintaining themselves as experts in their field.

Care about the Students

All teachers can connect with some students, but teachers do their best work when they are able to connect with the broadest possible range of students. Hear them, listen to them, understand them, speak to them in terms that are meaningful for them. View all students, even the obnoxious ones, as valuable, interesting individuals. See them. Hear them. Know enough to see all varied and diverse backgrounds as human and normal. Love your students as they are, and as they best could be. And respect them-- respect them and treat them with all the respect you can.

Be a good colleague

Partner with your fellow teachers in the search for solutions, whether we're talking about solutions for staff management or maintenance of the physical plant. Partner to find solutions to problems that you share. Partner to find ways to approach students and content. Be professional; don't manage the building relationships and conflicts the same way seventh graders manage their lives.


I have never known a teacher I really respected who said anything like, "Well, I have this totally locked up and I never need to revisit it again."  Teachers do a better job when all curriculum, all lesson plans, all teaching materials are written in pencil. Every year go back to that same question-- What's the best way I can teach this material to these students?

Follow your passion.

Passion and commitment don't always (or even ever) latch onto the same things for different people. Nor does the expression of passion and commitment look the same for all humans. You do you. But be passionate about something. If you are just going trough the motions, you can expect your students to do the same, and they deserve so much more. When you show them your passionate interest in bonsai trees, you aren't modeling bonsai trees for them-- you're modeling how to be passionate about something.

Be honestly and authentically present, but be a rock, too.

Be honest. Be there. Don't put on a big plastic teacher costume every day. That said, do not bring your personal messes to school and spew them all over the classroom. Honesty and authenticity are hugely important, but changing today's plans because you had a fight with your significant other this morning-- well, one of your jobs is to be the grownup in the room. Do that. You may be the one stable rock, the one dependable anchor in a churning ocean. Be that rock.

Believe that your students are strong, capable, and important.

Then act like you believe it. Give them mountains to climb, then backstop them all the way up the mountainside. Team this up with a generous spirit and you can accomplish a great deal.

Value education and small humans. 

Yeah, this should be obvious, but I'm trying to be thorough. 

About this list

This list is no guarantee. For one thing, all of these look a lot different to different people. For another, as previously mentioned, these are all easier some days than others (and easier with some people than with others). Still, holding onto these values increases the likelihood that you're going to do good work.

From a policy standpoint, however, this list is problematic because pretty much nothing on it is measurable in a standardized data-point method. I'd argue that it's better to have teachers who can do their jobs well than a teacher evaluation system based on qualities chosen primarily because they are measurable.

I'm okay with that. You can bust a gut tying to measure the river and keep generating a batch of meaningless numbers, or you can just put your feet in the river, the new river that reveals itself every day and grow and strengthen in response. That's the relationship with the river that I want.


  1. I read your stuff all the time and don't comment too much. Just want to give a shout out to your hard (and thoughtful) work. Thank you for sharing your ideas. I enjoyed reading about the traits of a good teacher, because even as a 20 year veteran I always like being reminded of the important things (especially in March!!)