Friday, February 22, 2013

What Makes a Great Teacher?

It's hard to believe, but we are already at that point in the school year where principals are looking to hire their necessary staff for the 2013-1014 school year.  Due to the unfortunate budget cuts throughout public education, it is a buyer's market for teachers, which means principals will be faced with a plethora of applicants for virtually every open position.  How do principals go about narrowing the field, interviewing candidates, and choosing the best possible teachers for their students?  What characteristics make a teacher great?  Is being a great teacher innate, or is it a learned skill?  Annette Breaux attempts to answer these questions in her article "Can Anyone Be a Great Teacher?"

Breaux believes that
Though some people definitely possess an innate "gift" for teaching, most great teachers were not born.  They were made!
I believe this to a certain extent, but I will get back to my personal thoughts at the conclusion of this post.

In the blog posting, Breaux identifies many characteristics of effective teachers.  First and foremost, she argues that
At the risk of overstating the obvious, great teachers truly love children!  If you don't love children, you can't be a great teacher. Period.  At the risk of really overstating the obvious, if you don't love children, you shouldn't be in education!
She goes on to discuss characteristics like classroom management skills, subject matter knowledge, positive attitude, embracing change, and setting high expectations.  However, there were two other characteristics that really made an impact on me.

Breaux posits that establishing positive relationships with students is a necessity to be considered a great teacher.  Great teachers...
...subscribe to the belief that in order to teach a student, you must first reach a student.  Thus, they get to know their students on a personal level.
Building relationships is something we have been focusing on in District #1 for the past two years, and I agree that it is paramount to the success of any classroom teacher.  Before the students will learn from you, they have to know that you care about them...and they know when we are faking it!

She also stated that, "Great teachers understand they are actors on a stage."  I still remember one of my high school teachers saying, "I'm not here to entertain you, I'm here to teach you."  Well, if you aren't entertaining, then most likely your students will be bored.  When they are bored, they will not learn.  If there is no learning, then there is no teaching going on.  Absent learning taking place, then a teacher is just talking, not teaching.  The great teachers are some of the best entertainers I know.

In summary, I agree with virtually all of the characteristics of great teachers Breaux identified.  I also agree to some extent that some of these characteristics can be learned.  However, I strongly believe there are certain innate characteristics that a teacher candidate must already possess if they are ever to become great.  In fact, I tell my building principals to look for these three characteristics in any teacher candidate.
  1. Care about kids
  2. Positive attitude
  3. Work ethic
If a teacher candidate has these three characteristics, we can teach them all of the other skills they need to become a great teacher.  However, I have never seen a teacher become great who does not possess these three traits.  Subject-matter knowledge is important, but it can be learned.  Teaching pedagogy is important, but it can be learned.  Classroom management skills are important, but they can be learned.  Caring about kids, being positive, and working hard are innate skills that people either possess or they don't.  The organization cannot teach these skills.  Therefore, we cannot afford to hire educators who don't already possess them, as they are a necessity on the path to becoming a truly "great teacher".

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Has Testing Reached a Tipping Point?

I recently read a blog post by Sam Chaltain, "Has Testing Reached a Tipping Point?"  As educators, we are all aware that since the inception of NCLB in 2001, most legislators and educational reformers have been touting the virtues of standardized testing.  Although doing so makes no statistical sense, the effectiveness of schools in the poorest areas of Chicago are being judged by the same standardized test score expectations as those schools located in the wealthiest north shore communities.  NCLB has set a completely unrealistic goal that 100% of all students must meet or exceed standards on these State tests by 2014 (even though no country in the world has ever accomplished such achievement levels).  Now, there is a State and Federal push to tie teacher evaluations to these standardized test scores.  All of this causes Chaltain to question if our country is finally starting to realize the dangers of such an all out emphasis on standardized test scores.

Such an aggressive assault on public education by the State and Federal government has caused educators to begin emotionally speaking out about the negative ramifications of focusing solely on standardized testing.  However, as the Chaltain stated, we have to be careful in how we approach trying to change the current process for the better.
To convert their opponents from hostility to acceptance, educators will need to clarify more than what they're against; they'll also need to propose specific and realistic alternatives.
That last statement closely aligned with my own personal thoughts on this topic.  We have to be very careful that in our messages espousing the inherent dangers of relying solely on standardized testing to judge students, teachers and schools, that we are not seen as simply being scared of accountability.  Worse yet, we cannot send the message to the public that we don't value the data that appropriate assessment provides.  Every profession spends time collecting appropriate data, evaluating that data, and using that data for continuous improvement.  Education should be no different.  The continuous improvement of our schools is dependent upon this process.  To not collect and evaluate student performance data would be educational malpractice on our parts.

Therefore, we have to do more than oppose the narrow focus of using only standardized testing data.  Instead, we must also identify and champion viable alternatives that can be used to accurately and fairly evaluate the effectiveness of our instruction and our schools.  That is the challenge we face, because identifying problems is easy, but offering solutions is challenging.  All educators must rise to this challenge, or accept the fact that the rules of the accountability game will continue to be dictated to us.