Tuesday, January 21, 2014

7, 14, or 17? What it means to be a great teacher

Apparently there are anywhere from 7 to 17 things that educators can do to be highly effective
teachers. Todd Whitaker's first book told us there were 14 things great teachers do differently, but now there seem to be 17. You can get a sense of the genesis of this book from the 2005 document of essentially the same title. The reviews will tell you this is one of the best books ever, and some will tell you the information is common sense and not particularly innovative. I'd agree with the later, but there is some truth in thinking that we often overlook or ignore the obvious.

Whitaker speaks to something I've been saying for years: it's the teacher, not the program, not the resources, not the curriculum, not the teachers' dress code. It's the teacher.

In fact, in the first edition and in the 2005 document, Whitaker states:
The issue with ineffective teachers is almost always the person, not the practice or program. . . .Many times we think that programs are the problem or that programs are the solution. That is one reason we are so quick to jump on new ideas–open classrooms, whole language, block scheduling, etc. None of these ideas are wrong, and none of them are right. It all depends on the effectiveness of the staff members who are implementing them. The only reason to implement a program is to refine or enhance the skills of our staff members. The program itself is never the solution or the problem. There are only two ways ways to improve our schools. Hire better teachers or improve the ones we have.
So what are the things great teachers do differently? What makes them effective teachers? Well, I'm not going to cut into Mr. Whitaker's profits by summing up his book, but I will tell you what I think are the qualities of a great teacher.

First, listen. Listen to your students, even if and especially when they aren't actually talking. What is it that engages them? What happens when they start getting distracted? What happened that distracted them? What behaviors and attitudes do you hear when your students are in the process of learning? Yes, what do you hear. Sure, it's easy to talk about what you see, but don't forget to listen carefully and that will supplement what you see or what you think you see.

Second, great (and clear) expectations. Do your students know what you expect of them? Classroom behavior and manners? On assignments? One of the elements of text complexity is reader and task. In the Standards we are reminded that "variables specific to particular readers (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and to particular tasks (such as purpose and the complexity of the task assigned and the questions posed) must also be considered when determining whether a text is appropriate for a given student." The tasks or assignments I give and the questions I pose indicate my level of expectation of my students. It's not just a matter of students knowing how to complete a task to get a good grade. It's a matter of students knowing that if the task seems too daunting, I believe they can do it. We might have to work a little harder or a little differently, but my expectation is that they will, perhaps with my facilitation and/or perhaps with the collaboration of their colleagues, they will be successful.

Third, it's always, always, always, always about the kids. The more I listen, especially when I'm stating my expectations, the better I will get to know my kids. That means I'll have a better idea of who will struggle with what and I'll have a better idea how they might respond to texts and tasks. If my focus is student-centered, it's because I listen and because I think about what it's like to be them in my class, and that my class is one of many classes. If I listen and remember it's always about the kids, then I don't worry about educational trends or fads because I  know that what I do this year may not be the same as I what I did last year or will do next year, and that what I do in one class may differ from what I do to help a different group of students achieve the same objectives in a different.

I think it's really easy to come up with an extensive list, and I could add to my three. But I think many of the others are corollaries.

In the end, whether you're comfortable with seven standards or 17 things that matter most doesn't matter. What matters is emembering that it's always about the kids and that means worrying less about your teaching and more about their learning. I believe that as we focus more on students and their learning, our teaching naturally evolves. And we become better for it, as people and as teachers.

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