What Makes a Great Teacher?

Recently, Amanda Ripley published a piece in The Atlantic that did some investigation into what makes a great teacher based on studies done by Teach for America. The article has generated a significant amount of agitation among a number of bloggers I've read recently. I, too, am more than slightly perturbed at the way the article portrays the profession. I've been meaning to vent about this one for a while now. So here it goes:

There are so many things I want to say about this article that I honestly don't even know where to start. So I guess I'll start with the beginning. Ms. Ripley introduces us to Mr. Taylor, a fifth-grade math teacher at Kimball Elementary School in DC. What seems to be unique about Mr. Taylor is that he is a third-year teacher who is a master at his craft. He has a tidy classroom, seemingly solid and well-rehearsed classroom routines, and the miraculous ability to bring the percentage of his students at grade level up from forty percent at the beginning of the year to ninety percent at the end.

Later in the article we learn how Mr. Taylor's classroom runs on what I assume we're to believe is a daily basis. Students apparently all come in without Mr. Taylor in the room and immediately begin their work silently. Mr. Taylor comes in, greets the students dressed like some sort of fashion model who's too important to remove the bluetooth from his ear to talk to the kids (seriously, I hope the kid with his hand up in the picture on the front of the article is about to ask Mr. Taylor why he can't take his scarf and bluetooth off and stay for a while), and instructs kids it's time for mental math. At this point all of the children grab their index cards and get prepared to have a hell of a good time learning.

Ripley uses language that implies that what happens in Mr. Taylor's classroom is the epitome of fun learning. He uses "clever" strategies. The kids "pump their fists." There is a "low buzz" in the room as kids work together. It's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't want an invite to this party. In fact, Mr. Taylor is so engaging that in three years, he's never had a student put their head on their desk in an elementary school in Washington, DC. Ummmmmm, okay..... I'm just going to leave that alone.

All of this praise being showered on Mr. Taylor is surrounded by a discussion about evidence provided by Teach for America that demonstrates that young, inexperienced, top-notch college grads are the silver-bullet answer to all of education's problems. It's pretty easy to get that impression anyway. Mr. Taylor is contrasted with older, less-effective, more jaded, and I think we'd be safe in assuming less fashionable teachers. These other teachers spent most of their time complaining to Ripley. Apparently, all these jaded teachers have to do is complain about how hard teaching is and how other teachers in richer schools have it better. And don't forget that they make $80,000 per year. Assholes. Anyway, it's pretty obvious which side Ripley lands on when it comes to the TFA debate.

If you happened to have read this article and you have no experience teaching or with education, it would be incredibly tempting to believe that we may have found the cure to all that ails inner-city public education. You may get the impression that teaching is for those youthful, inspired, out-to-save-the-world types who, if they could just get a few of the right teacher trainings under their belt, could easily move this country into the golden age of education.

For those of you prone to believe this due to your inexperience with teaching, let me briefly (okay, probably not so briefly) explain why teaching is HARD and why there is no silver bullet when it comes to fixing our society's lack of interest in education.

Okay - so, believe it or not, teaching is not merely an act of getting in front of a classroom, telling kids some important facts, testing them to see if they got it, and then giving them grades for it. Teaching is a true profession. There are truckloads of research that have gone into it and a number of relatively well agreed upon best practices. Nobody just jumps into the classroom and automatically knows all of this information. Additionally, the time commitment that comes with the job of a teacher is truly outrageous. This is why every good teacher leaves school knowing that they have about a million things that they still need to do in order to be on top of everything their administrators (and the public) expect them to be on top of. It's why many new and energetic teachers burn out quickly after spending their first years getting to school at 5am and leaving at 8pm.

Many people have asked me, "Do you really have to spend that much time at it?"

"Well yea, if I want to do a half-decent job at it," I respond.

And then comes the comment I could tear the person's head off for. "C'mon. Really? I mean, how much work could it really be? Plus you get summers off."

Alright, here we go. If people really want to know what takes up a teacher's time and why it's a job that will kick your ass on a daily basis, here it is (if you're a teacher, you might want to skip this in order to preserve your interest in this post):

The first thing a decent (and I say decent, because even after doing all these things, there's something extra a teacher needs - that intangible that some people just don't have - in order to be great) teacher does is figure out what they want to teach. This is not an easy process. States have developed standards to facilitate that process for teachers, but actually selecting the minor details, creating your objectives, and figuring out big ideas for your course (especially when you've never taught it before) can literally take weeks. I'd say you probably would need to start at least a month beforehand if you wanted to be really prepared for a course. Contrast this need with the reality that many teachers don't find out what they're teaching except for a week (and sometimes a day or less) before school starts, and you can begin to see why teachers can be so stressed.

After a decent teacher decides what they're going to teach, they've got to figure out how they're going to assess it. What kind of tests will they give their students to find out whether the students actually learned the material. A decent teacher does this first because if s/he doesn't, it becomes easy to veer off track and teach something that doesn't fit in with the rest of the curriculum and confuse students. Coming up with a quality, easy-to-understand assessment that you can give students and gather data about their performance with is no small task. I've easily spent an entire day working on a single assessment.

Now a teacher has to figure out how they're going to teach the material. They've got to incorporate all of the strategies they learned about in teacher school (or a five-week training over the summer) that will best support their students. And they can't just throw a bunch of activities down on paper. A decent teacher realizes that activities have to build off of each other. They have to flow and smooth transitions need to occur between activities if time is going to be maximized. A teacher also needs to figure out how they're going to differentiate the lesson they've created for the whole group for special education students or gifted students. Many teachers will tell you that differentiation shouldn't be the act of creating a whole new lesson, but, in fact, with some of the severely limited students that a lack of resources forces systems like DCPS to throw in regular education classes and call "inclusion," that is often necessary. I've often taken two or three times as much time as the class actually lasts to create a lesson plan that I know will work well - that's three to four hours in my case.

Now that this decent teacher has done all this work, they have to go into the classroom and meet their students. In most inner-city classrooms, this means building serious rapport with students while setting firm ground rules for positive behavior along with consistent routines. These rules must be upheld if the teacher is to hope for any type of positive learning environment to continue. So when you have twelve people come tardy to your class, you've got to a) remember they were tardy at the end of the day, b) be willing to stay for detention or implement whatever consequence you've set up, and c) take the time to call home as it continues to happen. Kids will not adhere to your policies unless you make it clear that your for real about enforcing them. Good classroom management sucks A LOT of time away from the decent classroom teacher, especially in the first month of school when those rules are being tested. I estimate that I spend at least four hours per week dealing with discipline. If I didn't, I wouldn't have a shot in hell at teaching anything in the class. The students would know I was a joke and walk all over me.

Then, the decent teacher has to react to variables they didn't anticipate when they were planning. Back to the drawing board with a lot of lessons.

After assessments have been given, they must be graded. Research tells us that feedback is one of the most important things you can do as a teacher to boost student understanding. Grading IS A BITCH. It looked cool when you were in school (I always wanted to grade my teacher's papers), but it is monotonous and takes FOREVER. But it's important, so a decent teachers do it. It could take more than twelve hours out of a decent teacher's week if they've assigned a major project (especially if it's an essay).

Decent teachers call parents. If a teacher makes consistent contact with all the parents like they're supposed to (according to administrators, impractical idealism, and DCPS), I'd say that probably would take about four hours out of your week (it only takes two out of mine since I generally am calling home to disconnected numbers and only the kids who I have the most problems with).

There are probably about a million other things that I've left off (professional development, staff meetings, collaboration time, etc.), but this is a pretty good start. And you do all of this if you happen to have a clue about teaching. A lot of new teachers jump in without any plans and end up planning night by night. They lack direction, forget to assess their students, don't know what to do with test scores (or what they're really assessing) when they do assess, and have so many problems dealing with the kids that they a) end up teaching virtually nothing as their class has gone to chaos and b) lose their motivation to do any of it well.

Right about the time you start to realize that this is your job, you see that there's no way in hell you could ever do all of it. Teachers begin cutting corners. They throw away assignments without grading them; they skip a meeting here and there; they don't call every single parent; they don't give a test over a unit. And hopefully you can see why. There's far too much to do in this job before you ever even step in front of children and say a word.

Real teaching is HARD. It's the nitty-gritty. It's not walking into your classroom with a bluetooth and saying, "Okay, lets begin!" (Honestly, I don't really have that much beef with Mr. Taylor. He might be great. That article just pissed me off.) In a lot of environments, you do the work every day and you rarely see the payoff. This is what real teaching is, and I hope people outside the profession can see that.

This is not an easy job to learn. You're not just born with everything you need (although there are certainly some people who are more naturally cut out for it than others). So anytime someone like Ms. Ripley uses her position to suggest that all we really need are some fresh faces, it really pisses me off. Those fresh faces are being used in most under-performing districts to fill in the gaps that professional teachers refuse in hopes of maintaining their dignity; they're being used to de-professionalize a job that needs to be viewed with more respect by society as a whole, not less. And sadly, most of them will be out of teaching within two or three years, which is just at the point you start to see a glimmer of what good teaching is really all about.

Take Mr. Taylor as an example. He's working on his master's in administration. Imagine that. After three years, he's ready to jump out of the classroom. In my mind, this is a perfect example of one of the things that is so wrong with the young TFA type (even though Mr. Taylor was not a TFAer). Too many of these people are type-A personalities who are unwilling to gain the experience necessary to go into administrative positions. It's about moving up the ladder for them and showing their family and friends what an important person they've become. You don't learn to be the perfect teacher in three years and then move on. There are far too many administrators at my school who have less experience teaching that I do, and I only have four years. They're telling me how to teach, making unrealistic demands on my time, and working their ass off to show their boss how ready they are to be principal next, and then maybe they can get a superintendent job somewhere. That'll impress. Ugh - get off your high horse and actually do your time in the classroom. You'll be a better administrator for it when the time is right.

We don't need quick fixes in education. They will never work. They're stand-ins that keep us from looking at the real problems in our society. We'll never improve our systems until all of us take a long hard look in the mirror and commit to action. I bet we're a long way away from that though.


  1. funny that Ripley couldn't find a TFA example of an effective teacher.

  2. I absolutely thought the same thing. I am so sick of TFA being held up as some example. Sure, they are filling a need by staffing inner city schools with high turn over rates and low test scores, where no veteran teacher wants to go. But no suburban district would want them: parents there would demand experienced, credentialed teachers. Though some good veteran teachers are committed to staying in high poverty schools, most get out when a less demanding school has a vacancy.

  3. and why do they have to staff these schools with the so called "best and brightest" (defined as elite school grads who didn't plan on going into teaching), then give them quickie teacher training and a low-cost master's degree. Why not open it up to people who actually want to teach? Especially when the research shows that the TFA kids don't do any better and can do worse than other teachers?

    I'll tell you why - all the prestige would be gone and so would the turn-over.

  4. TFA stories remind me of dead young blond stories. Remember a few years ago when people started complaining that murders didn't get reported or investigated unless the victim was a young blond? - i.e. very desirable and ergo considered a real tragedy.

    It's the same with TFA. Urban education is worthy of reporting only in the context of TFA coming to the rescue. The plight of the kids and work of the other teachers doesn't matter much. Urban education is most newsworthy when glamorous TFA takes center stage.

  5. I literally squealed when I saw your shout out on Bill Turque's blog! :)

  6. Yes, I was happy to see it also. Bill Turque is a friend to the truth and to teachers.

  7. I, I think along with many others, sent Bill Turque emails suggesting he contact you or connect to your blog. I can see a new career for you already. Keep on speaking out and investigating the truth. I always thought it would be interesting to investigate the real story about Rhee's teaching career in Baltimore. It can't be that difficult to find out the truth about the test scores (not if they were as extraordinary as she said), or how good a teacher she was, it would just take time and someone asking the right questions to the right people. No so much to unmask her as a liar and a fraud, but to show that it takes time to become a great teacher; there is a learning curve, and it's not possible to be a great teacher after a 5-week crash course. Please research this story, it would be a great one to tell, and would inspire all new teachers not to give up!

  8. Amen brother. I too checked out of teaching this past November as well after teaching in DCPS six years. What's extremely dangerous about this new wave of reform is that it uses pop culture gimmicks to trick parents into thinking our children are learning more when clearly they are not. Today's students are the children of those who were grossly undereducated by DCPS in the 80's. They do not understand what achievement is because they were initially denied it- TFA literally is profiting from this...

  9. another Kimball teacherJanuary 15, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    I understand your skepticism about Mr. Taylor's success at Kimball because it is unusual; however, I can substantiate the claims in the article. I now work at Mr. Taylor's school and teachers told me months ago how disciplined and engaged his students are. I asked him was he sure that no student had put their head on their desk in 3 years, and he thought about and assured me that it just doesn't happen in his class because students are having fun and also as a sign of respect for him (he does ask them how would they feel if he put his head down while they talked to him).

    He never said teaching was easy, but he does enjoy what he does and he builds relationships based on respect with students.

  10. TO No Name who said, "Sure, they are filling a need by staffing inner city schools with high turn over rates and low test scores, where no veteran teacher wants to go. But no suburban district would want them: parents there would demand experienced, credentialed teachers. Though some good veteran teachers are committed to staying in high poverty schools, most get out when a less demanding school has a vacancy" ...

    ISN'T THAT THE POINT?!! Every child deserves a teacher willing to go to the ends of the earth for him/her. If the "good, suburban" teachers aren't going to do it, someone has to! Your comment is a little frightening because it seems to suggest that you don't believe children in urban (or rural for that matter) deserve the same opportunities as suburban children. Maybe Teach for America is not the answer, but at least someone out there is attempting to do something.

  11. another Kimball teacher: Thank you for the insight. I was kind of hoping to hear from someone who works with him. I appreciate it.

  12. VDB - of course every kid deserved a good teacher, but what's the magic of having a band of elite teachers putting in a couple of years before getting out of the ghetto and getting a law degree? What about other teachers who have spent or are willing to spend a career with these kids. Are they scum? There have always been teachers willing and even eager to teach these kids, without getting a special deal or expecting special recognition. They should be treated better. Conditions for the kids should be a lot better. Instead, we spend time praising the precious TFA teachers.

  13. F** you if you actually believe I don't think all students don't deserve an excellent teacher, especially urban learners who come to school with a whole lot more baggage than middle class suburban children. None of us teaching in DCPS, as most of us here do believe that. I just don't think a 24 year old recent college grad from TFA is an excellent teacher, with their program's scant preparation. Sure, maybe in five years, they'd become an excellent teacher. If they really want to teach, be a teacher. Not a two-year teacher, but a teacher. Do it for a living. Stay in it. Either major in education or get a teaching certificate. That's what people do who want to teach.
    Kings, thank you. TFA gets all this special recognition. And the underlying theme is really this: they think they're so smart and special and despite that, they go into teaching, like it's some kind of missionary work.

  14. VDB: I really don't think No name was at all intending to suggest that every inner-city child doesn't deserve a fine teacher. What No name was suggesting is that it's a shame that they don't get one given the environment that has been set up in many inner-cities where excellent teachers with experience are not prone to last given the horrendous school environments that exist. I believe No name was saying that what every child deserves is the environment that will attract and retain excellent, experienced teachers. And we won't have that until we make some drastic organizational changes in the way we do things.

  15. Not only does TFA buy into the idea that teachers' unions are a major obstacle in improving education especially in urban schools, they also think veteran/career teachers bear a large share of the blame as well. They think they need to come in on their white horses and rescue the ill-served urban learner from the bedroom slipper wearing worksheet giving teachers' college graduates who are the faculty at most inner city schools. Believe you me, TFA rubs a lot of career teachers the wrong way. And then can't control their kids. BTW, I'm neither TFA or a teachers' college grad so I can see both sides of this.

  16. Mr. Taylor's bluetooth earpiece bothered me to no end! I have seen many DC teachers "teach" while taking calls on bluetooth, and it's absolutely heartbreaking.

    Of course the kids are fond of him. Those of us familiar with urban kids know that they are so used to emotional cruelty that they adore you if you show them the slightest attention.

    I'm not buying Ripley's piece AT ALL. Effective teaching requires 110% of your attention. If you are taking calls, you might be physically in the room, but you are not there mentally.

  17. Maybe Mr. taylor is getting signals from his bluetooth on when to switch learning styles and when to assure his students that he thinks they can succeed.

  18. Anon at 1245: Hilarious. I wish they would have told me that was an option before I had my evals

  19. I read this and sighed. I'm working at a title-1 school and am already looking for another job. Reading over the qualities of a 'decent' teacher made me cringe a bit and solidified my desire to leave. Test scores are the first thing administration worries about in my school. Because the whole building is focused on tests my curriculum suffers.

    I'm supposed to teach on a schedule, not according to a reasonable pace for my students. Talk about re-teaching and reviewing exams happens but, the time to accomplish these tasks is supposed to be pulled from thin air. If I stay I know that I will become lazy. If I stay I will lose the motivation to be a 'decent' teacher. If I stay I will keep cutting corners. I have to leave so I can relish writing comments on essays yet again knowing that there is time to review, revise and learn.

  20. The Ripley claims aren't so outrageous, are they? Yes, she's a storyteller, and so the article ends up having a vaguely utopian feel to it - she needs an angle as a journalist, after all. Any actual teacher understands that. On the other hand, doesn't it seem as if there is a point to all this? That quantitative studies can at least contribute to answering questions of teacher effectiveness? That what makes a good teacher ought to be measured by student learning and not by the hopes and desires of the teachers and administrators? I don't think the Atlantic article was implying that there is some magic youthful teacher corps out there that doesn't require training or practical knowledge, only the magic aura of their fashion sensibilities. I think it was implying the exact opposite. If you're interested, there is an interesting take on what DOESN'T make a good teacher here:


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