What makes a great teacher great? It’s a good question at any time of year, but as teachers return to their classrooms in the weeks ahead, postering their walls and preparing their lesson plans, it’s a great time to focus on great teachers and great teaching, since there’s lots of evidence that it makes all the difference to student success. We’re focused on “back to school” in my own house, and it excites me to hear my kids talk about their year ahead—their classes, their classmates, and what teachers they’ll have for the coming year.
I enjoy talking to my kids’ teachers; in fact, I enjoy talking to teachers, period. It’s a lot of fun for me. I find their enthusiasm infectious. My role at the Gates Foundation allows me to talk to teachers from all over the country, and to seek their advice and insight on how to best achieve our goal of making sure all students in this country graduate from high school prepared for college or other forms of postsecondary education. By listening to what teachers have to say about what they see in their classrooms every single day, I learn how our foundation can support them in the most effective and efficient ways.
This summer, I spent time asking teachers for their feedback. The conversations were so enlightening that I wanted to share some of the themes that kept jumping out at me.
Great teachers are passionate.
My favorite moment in these conversations came when I asked these teachers why they’d gone into teaching. They all had an answer right away; their eyes lit up when they shared it, and their stories were powerful. A couple of teachers I spoke with went into teaching because their own teachers had inspired them and they wanted to pass that inspiration on. One woman said she started teaching just to pass time before starting law school, but once she’d started she loved it too much to stop. She never did manage to get to law school. Others talked about their subjects, and how their love of English, or chemistry, or history was something they just needed to ignite in others, or try. Whatever the source of their passion, passion was a common denominator, and a driver for great teachers.
Great teachers are true experts.
A lot of people believe that teaching math, for example, just involves knowing a little bit about math and then standing up in front of a bunch of kids and explaining it to them. In fact, teachers spend years honing both subject expertise and a unique set of teaching skills, figuring out how to structure their classrooms and their lessons to produce authentic learning rather than just the rote instruction. Holly Phillips, who teaches math in Kentucky, talked to me about what she called Monkey Syndrome: she can drill equations into her students’ brains, and they can mimic them to get good enough grades on tests, but they still don’t really know math. She’s spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach in new ways that let students see the underlying reasons for learning quadratic equations, cosines, and factoring. “They come up with so much more,” she said, “than I could think to put in a lesson.” Her story really struck me: great teachers are experts in not only WHAT they teach, but HOW to teach it in ways that will catch fire with their students.
Great teachers are committed to their students’ success.
There’s a common myth about teachers—that they know right away which students are going to succeed and which are going to fail, and they concentrate on the “good” students. But the teachers who talked to me blow that misconception out of the water. They spoke about their commitment to reaching all of their students, and many of them spent most of our time together talking about reaching the kids who didn’t get the material as easily. William Anderson, who teaches social science in Denver, put it this way: “There are very few teachers who wake up and say to themselves, I want this kid to be a failure. We wake up with success on our minds, and we work hard to instill that into kids.”
Great teachers want in on the conversation.
One last thing came through in my discussions with the teachers: they want to be part of the debate about school improvement in this country. “A lot of teachers feel like their voice isn’t heard,” said William, “and that regardless of what we say, people are just going to do things to us rather than with us.” Teachers may wake up with success for their students on their minds, but they can’t do it alone. They need support from parents, administrators, and legislators. One of the things we’re trying to do at our foundation is to help teachers get that support they’re looking for. Because if more of us entered into conversation with teachers and got w to hear them talk about what’s possible for our kids and our classrooms, we’d be a lot more optimistic about education. I know I am.