What Make a Great Teacher? Part 4

As American Education Week comes to to an end I believe we are entering an era that requires drastic measures to ensure the success of America’s school system.

The results of the National Assessment of Education Progress released Thursday display the sames issues that emerge time and time again on other standardized tests. There is a substantial difference between the performance of whites and minorities, between middle class and poor. There are so many external factors affecting a students success.

I hope that the national debate on education reform will allow for a real dialogue about the challenges facing our education system and focus on the hard work and collaboration necessary to address these issues.

For the fourth and final segment in the What Makes a Great Teacher? series, I interviewed a literacy specialist and remedial reading teacher at a middle school in Northern Virginia.  When asked about whether or not schools work well he refers to teaching as an “industry” that needs to continually change and innovate- this answer resonated with me as I think it will with many of you.

When a business stops creating, it dies. Business models go through their life cycles and without change there cannot be growth. Our education system is no different. It is time for a change.

What is the single most important factor in determining a students success?

I wish I could say it had something to do with me.  I would love to take credit.  The single most important factor in a student’s success is early parent involvement. I can really only speak with any authority from the reading side of things, and here you see a dramatic difference.  From the start, parents reading to kids, and speaking to them in a variety of contexts and with a dynamic vocabulary puts children on the road to success in reading and therefore school.  Unfortunately this idea is complicated by economics.  Poverty plays a huge role.  For example children raised by professional parents hear somewhere around 32 million more words than children who were raised in poverty by the time they are 4 years old.  Imagine trying to make sense of the world with 32 million fewer words.  So the parent involvement is paramount, however it is not as much of a cut and dry choice as it may seem.  It starts very early and if it doesn’t start, it is very hard to make it up.  It is not to say that poverty is an educational death sentence, but the work is much harder.

How can students do their best in school?

Students can do their best in school by learning to be flexible in their thinking and finding their own meaning in what they are learning.  I often hear students saying that they will never use Biology in real life, and to a certain extent they are correct.  When students begin to see the value in learning new ideas and new ways of thinking then they can start to do their best in school.  I will often respond to students who tell me that a reading is “boring” that I was not looking for an evaluation, and that I want for them to tell me not if it was interesting, but if they can see the value in it.

Do schools today work well? Or are their changes needed?

Change is constantly needed; in any industry. No one would want a medical procedure to be done on them using methods from even 10 years ago, certainly we should not be teaching using methods from 10 years ago.  The patients are different and the methods have become better.  We grew up doing round robin, or popcorn reading, and we can remember as good readers we would count how many paragraphs there were until us, read the passage before the teacher came to us and and space out in the meantime.  The kids who were not good readers likely spent that time freaking out about having to read aloud to the class, and also likely did not have the strategies to identify what they were responsible for.  Either way, we are not reading the entire passage and the lesson is lost.  So yes change is always needed.  In structure, and in methods.

The focus on standardized testing and the notion that there is only one way to demonstrate proficiency is damaging to students and to schools.  Schools would benefit from a  shift in thinking

It’s not how smart are you, it’s how are you smart.

How do you measure an effective teacher?

There is a huge difference between an effective teacher and a good teacher.  Good teachers could spend their careers teaching well and not being effective.  I guess the simple answer is that an effective teacher is one who pushes their students to think critically and become independent learners.  I am always really proud when my students become frustrated with the repetitive nature of my class.  It shows me that they are thinking meta cognitively and evaluating their own learning.

How do you measure an effective student?

An effective student is one who takes accountability and responsibility for their own learning.  They have to want it for themselves or it will never really happen.  When I think back on my own education, it was not until I felt that the work was for me and not my parents or my friends, was when I really began to learn. It felt good to get good grades, but I wasn’t really building something that meant anything.

What makes a great teacher?

A great teacher has to be in it for the kids.  A great teacher has to care about them.  A great teacher has to see the world through their students eyes, and decide to teach from there.  This is by far the most difficult question on here, because if I knew, I would go out and do it.  A great teacher has patience for themselves.  I still on occasion will craft a formal letter of apology to my first year students.  When I think back, I was awful.  AWFUL.  A great teacher knows that and still comes in on Monday morning.  Patience, knowledge, and a drive to be better.
What Makes a Great Teacher: Part 3

Mike Toner

Based in Alexandria, Virginia Michael is the Manager of Social Media at Navy Federal Credit Union. By evening, he's a husband, dog owner and runner. Toner writes about social media strategy, tools, training and best practices for social and digital marketing programs.


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