What Does an Effective Teacher Look Like?

From the Principal's Office Updated June 10, 2015

Teacher Speaks to ClassIt’s amazing to think that after all the research money spent, books written and breath expended to discuss teaching that there would be any doubt as to what an effective teacher looks like, yet we constantly find ourselves circling back to that question. Looking at it from a positive perspective, I like to think our introspection simply reflects our desire to constantly improve the ways we help children.

That being understood, let’s look at the common habits of highly effective teachers:

1. They balance content delivery with developing learning skills

Being an effective teacher means being able to deliver content to children (i.e. ninth-grade algebra), but also to help them develop lifelong learning skills (studying, persistence, etc.) they need to succeed. Missing one factor or the other diminishes your effectiveness and can drastically affect the ability of your students to take a quality experience away from your class. Effective teachers strive for this balance.

2. They develop strong instructional skills

As he mentioned in his excellent book “Teach Like a Champion,” Doug Lemov has identified a wide variety of in-class traits and practices that teachers can develop to improve their student management skills. This includes something as seemingly mundane as distributing papers to developing a productive and positive classroom culture. An effective teacher is (and please excuse the extended metaphor) like a Navy SEAL in the respect that he or she could be dropped into any environment and not only survive, but flourish.

3. They play for the team

At one time in education, most teachers worked as independent contractors in the sense that they would simply take the their class lists, a set of materials and a group of students into a closed classroom and come out 180 days later. Today’s schools, following the lead of today’s business models, are based more and more on the need for professionals to work together in increasingly complex and interconnected ways. Even the best teacher with students will flame out in your school if he isn’t capable of working well with his peers.

4. They stay flexible

Much like in healthcare, and unlike many traditional business models, teachers always need to be ready to adjust on the fly. The ability to seamlessly move from a preplanned activity to a spontaneous need is not only an important trait, but indicative of an overall ability to manage busy and stressful situations with aplomb.

5. They keep a can-do attitude

Simply put, a teacher is only as effective as the attitude she brings to the classroom. Dealing with children consumes a lot of time and energy as the teacher needs to be “on” all the time. Given that teachers have few opportunities for downtime in today’s classrooms, they’d better address their responsibilities with an attitude of finding solutions and not one of assigning blame.

6. They have ‘The Right Stuff’

Teachers with "The Right Stuff" share certain qualities outlined in the famous movie and book of the same nameI’m child of the 1980s, so I remember reading and then watching the film version of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” an accounting of the early days of America’s space program. The “right stuff” is an ethereal, almost magical, quality that distinguished the best fighter jet test pilots.

I’ve found myself thinking of this as my colleagues and I were wrapping up our yearly teacher observations.  Seeing an entire staff of hard-working, dedicated professionals in action is a pleasure, and there is no doubt that we’ve seen teachers with the right stuff. Here’s what they have in common:

They believe in the work

What drives the best teachers to work so hard is an innate belief in the importance and quality of the work they do. They don’t see their duties as simply a job, but as something deeper, and important to society as a whole.

Realizing their direct impact on the lives of children — and turning that understanding into action — sets the best teachers apart. Don’t think of this as some “squishy” internal feeling. Rather, it’s strong belief put into action.

They don’t know how to quit

Informally, we call this the “grrr factor.” These teachers don’t give up, regardless of the student’s perceived ability level or attitude. When a student says no more can be learned, these teachers do a quick and informal assessment to measure understanding.

They don’t lower expectations for the struggling child; they try a different approach or strategy. It’s all about a relentless focus on helping students grow more proficient.

They believe in children

By their very nature, children are mistake-making machines. It’s part of the process of growing older and learning about the world around them.

Regardless of what the children may do, the best teachers know that all children can make better decisions if they encounter proper guidance and copious patience. Nothing is more foreign to them than the idea that adults should ever cut a child loose from care and guidance.

They have a natural flow

Watching these teachers in action is akin to watching a conductor lead a symphony. They make it look so effortless, but in reality, the apparent ease of their work is the result of years of honing their talent.

This trait tends to throw off most aspiring teachers as they sometimes make the mistake of thinking that they can’t grow into that kind of teacher. The best teachers aren’t born; they are made through their own work and the support of a school that offers them consistent opportunities to grow more proficient.

They’re friendly, but not friends

Students believe these teachers genuinely like them, but also realize they are not friends. Armed with a broad smile and gentle nature, the teacher captures far more student interest with this attitude than with the topic they’re teaching.

From this starting point, many reluctant students go along with the class based on the teacher’s enthusiasm and attitude, and eventually grow to enjoy the subject matter.

They communicate well

Their classroom work isn’t a secret to be kept from parents or the larger community. Regular communication about the learning flows from the teacher to the home.

Parents are invited, and expected, to help out by reviewing work and consistently reinforcing the importance of the class. Parents welcome this approach, and many, if not all, jump in to help.

They’re relentlessly positive

The best teachers presume everyone has the best intentions and treat people as such. Rather than getting pulled into a blame game when a child isn’t succeeding, teachers with the right stuff will begin to live in the solution rather than in the problem.

Doing this may require avoiding some colleagues who are more interested in the ills of the school than what is being done right.

Stay focused and you’ll get there

Now you may read this and exclaim to yourself, “Impossible! I can’t be this type of teacher all the time.” Don’t worry about all the time just yet. Just stay focused on your work today in your classroom, and you will string days into weeks and months and, eventually, into years. I’ve seen it happen time after time: With dedication, caring and belief, teachers eventually acquire the right stuff.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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