How A Good Teacher Becomes Great

How Does A Good Teacher Become Great?

by Terry Heick

Good teachers are amazing–and rare.

The ignorance of the Those who can’t, teach mantra is frightening–being a good teacher is an incredible challenge to achieve consistently.

Good teachers use data to drive instruction, know the ins and outs of their curriculum, have refined assessments over and over until they measure depth of content knowledge and not procedural knowledge or some crazy game of remember what the teacher said, or guess what the teacher’s thinking.

They support students in self-directed learning, know how technology actually improves learning, and exude a charisma that makes students eager to learn from them.

They know which assessments are for “show,” and which are for “go”—that is, which look good from 10 feet, and which provide visibility for both the student and teacher where the learning needs to go next.

Data and artifacts of learning for ECE, G/T, and other “special populations” (as if they all wouldn’t benefit from such individualization) are always current and accessible.

Good teachers create positive environments for students where each learner feels safe to share thinking, ask questions, and participate in conversations naturally.

In assignments, learning objectives are clear and within each student’s zone of proximal development—not too easy, not too hard. Resources come at just the right time, as do questions, grouping opportunities, and literacy strategies.

Transfer of knowledge is clear and apparent, backwards-planned for at the beginning of every intentionally planned and intricately-designed learning sequence.

Parents know what’s happening in the classroom as well—not just when report cards come out, but persistently through a combination of technology, visibility relevant work that ends up at home and in the communities, and on conference nights, where that good teacher stays until 8 o’clock to make every learner and learner family feel hear, valued, and understood.

Good teachers also attend staff meetings on time, are active contributors during team meetings, and know when a colleague needs advice, a resource, or just a listening ear.

They don’t break the copy machine with too many copies, submit their attendance on time, and always have all of the forms, training certificates, and documentation when office staff needs it.  They don’t bogart the computer lab, show up to PLC meetings unprepared, or forget to create neat and accessible make-up work for absent students.

During walk-throughs, good teachers make sure everything is exactly as the district wants it—compliance binder near the door, learning targets and essential questions posted clearly, evidence of data use as far as the eye can see, with every student on the edge of their seat ready to comply under the tutelage of such effortless and positive classroom management.

But for a teacher to truly become great, the above isn’t enough.

In fact, becoming a great teacher requires that much of the good teacher code be broken.

How A Good Teacher Becomes Great   

10. By Making Relationships a Priority

Learning should result in personal and social change. This requires personal relationships as much as it does academic progress, no matter what the data tells you.

9. By Showing True Content Expertise

As a teacher, you play many roles: colleague, sounding board, designer, task-master, friend. But lost in the hubbub of recent efforts to improve education seems to be a respect for the teacher as a content expert. Most university programs require very limited demonstrations of content expertise, and the folks that interview you in most K-12 schools and districts have for so long focused on assessment, classroom management, and other significant requirements of the job that their content knowledge, while perhaps not entirely perishable, has proven to wane over the years.

Great teachers are constantly seeking not simply more effective ways to teach, but more ways to understand the nuances of their own content area better themselves.

8. By Striving For Personalization

Differentiation of instruction is an excellent response to learner differences. Different learners have different needs—not just in terms of learning styles, but pace, sequence, and content. In a traditional environment, learners must be brought to the same standards and a similar level of proficiency, which is crude and dishonest. Though full-on personalized learning for every student is still beyond the reach of most educators (and thus students), great teachers strive for personalization of learning experiences.

7. By Always Seeking Meaning

Great teachers seek meaning—in the minds of students, in their content, in the role of the school in a community, in the roles technology should and should not fill in their classroom, and so on. While they honor popular opinion, great teachers independently seek their own meaning for everything they do—and not simply as part of an emotional check-list (Find meaning? Check.), but rather authentically, and with a playful, curious spirit.

6. By Modeling Curiosity

Speaking of curiosity, great teachers model it. Content expertise is crucial, but the tone of that expertise should never sound self-assured or arrogant. Teach like your classroom is a TED Talk, full of inquisitive minds that, while exceptionally bright, probably lack the specific sliver of expertise that you happen to have. By modeling curiosity—during discussions, presentations, conferences, meetings, and even Reciprocal Teaching panels—you’ll not only show students how curiosity leads all learning, but more importantly change the tone of your classroom entirely.

5. By Integrating Technology Meaningfully

This one sounds vague and obvious, but let’s clarify what it does not mean: to integrate technology meaningfully doesn’t simply mean to simply do what couldn’t otherwise be done without that technology (connect with global peers, embed a voice-over on a presentation, create a 3D model of a widget before pitching it to classmates). For it to truly be meaningful it has to result in understanding that somehow—in depth, duration, or complexity—exceeds that which it might have without that technology.

Learning is not about showmanship, or even learner engagement, but understanding.

4. By Collaborating With Other Great Teachers

Start with your local department, school, and district, and then make your way to twitter, facebook, and blogs everywhere. Birds of a feather….

3. By Measuring Understanding In Diverse Ways

Understanding is complex. It’s almost impossible to explain what it looks like, and two teachers in the same building teaching the same content might disagree passionately about what students should be able to say or do to prove “they get it.”

Recently I suggested that “the first (step) is to be aware of the ambiguity of the term “understands,” and don’t settle for simply paraphrasing it in overly-simple words and phrases like “they get it,” or “proficiency.” Honor the uncertainty by embracing that not only is understanding borderline indescribable, but is impermanent itself.”

The more diverse the evidence for understanding is that you accept, the more empowered and successful the learning in your classroom—and the more “real” it will all be—less about compliance, more about the students and that critical notion of understanding.

2. By Prioritizing

Great teachers have the same number of expectations placed on their shoulders as good—or even mediocre—teachers. And rarely do they get more done than these less than breed of educators. But they simply get the right things done. The important things. Like what? That’s another article for another day.

1. By Getting Out of the Students’ Way

Challenge students, convince them they can juggle planets, then get out of their way. So often good teachers—in their tremendous goodness—have tightly scripted the learning process to make sure to elicit all the hallmarks of learning. Only they bleach the learning in the process. Impose an authentic need to know on the students, give them the tools, and get out of their way.

The classroom of a great teacher is not filled with their own voice, buzz, or spirit, but that of the learners.

Perhaps the greatest strategy of all, then, is to know when to break the rules, and be willing to move out of the accepted archetype of “good teachers” to give your students what you know they need.

Image attribution flickr user cbgrfx123