Weigh In: What Makes a Great Teacher?
Administrators were eager to let us know what it takes.
"A great teacher must be resilient," says Gregory E. Thornton, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, "because there are social and economic pressures that weigh heavily on all of us. Milwaukee is fourth in the nation in poverty. A teacher's education and experience alone will not mitigate the power of poverty. That's why we need resilient teachers with an unwavering moral drive to make life better for kids.
"Great teachers are always looking for opportunities to increase their own knowledge. They are data driven. Like surgeons with lasers, they direct resources in ways that will move students. They have a strong moral imperative for change.
"In this information age, educators must become guides to learning. Children are now so techno-savvy that they are learning all day every day as long as there is a power cord or a battery or Wi-Fi. A great teacher must have digital agility."
"A great teacher invites every child to join a community of learners," says Maria Goodloe-Johnson, superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. "A great teacher creates a respectful place where students' lives, languages, and cultures are represented throughout the classroom. Routines and rituals provide a comfortable and safe place for students to take risks and express opinions and ideas. The community is a place that is student focused, where everyone is heard and knows they belong.
"A great teacher has a passion for learning and for the particular areas of study. The teacher skillfully builds upon what he or she already knows so that students are consistently challenged and deeply engaged. Students participate in a variety of learning experiences to find meaning and solidify new knowledge and skills. Excitement is felt everywhere, and the enthusiasm for learning cannot be contained. It travels beyond the classroom walls and often finds a place at the dinner tables and other places throughout the community."
"Great teachers are instructional leaders and curriculum designers," says Suzanne Freeman, superintendent of Trussville (AL) City Schools. "They identify difficult-to-teach and hard-to-learn concepts, and work collaboratively with other teachers to design authentic and meaningful learning experiences that engage students in their school work. They are constantly talking and listening to students so they can design work that motivates and inspires students to learn the content at high levels. They focus on student learning as opposed to teaching."
"Much of what makes a great teacher today is the same as it has always been," says Art Jarvis, superintendent of Tacoma (WA) Public Schools. "It's a passion for a subject, an inherently caring attitude, the ability to trigger receptiveness to learning in children, and a knack for coaching kids in fun ways. But today, that's no longer enough. In education we are facing a sea of change in high technology and higher expectations.
"Teachers today have at their fingertips electronic access to the history of the world and seemingly infinite knowledge. Good teachers are able to sift through a world of information and weave it into new lessons for 21st-century minds, while also teaching children how to do the same.
"Our schools can no longer simply cut loose those children who ‘don't cotton to that schooling stuff' and let them find their own futures. The world of productive jobs that don't require a diploma has disappeared forever. Today, we have the obligation to find ways to educate all children because their very survival depends on it."
"A great teacher needs to excel in five key areas," says Gene White, superintendent of Indianapolis (IN) Public Schools. "First, great teachers have to have a comprehensive knowledge of the subject matter they are teaching. Second, they have to have good communication skills to get the message across to students. Third, they must demonstrate to students that they care about them. We believe that students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they know that, they will be willing to do anything for you, regardless of how tough or rigorous you are. Fourth, great teachers have to be a lifelong learners who continue to learn and improve their craft. Lastly, great teachers must have outstanding interpersonal skills. They must be able to relate and communicate with parents, administrators, and kids."
"Great teachers love what they do and perceive teaching as their calling," says Neil Pedersen, superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro (NC) City Schools. "They are willing to do whatever it takes for every student to be successful. Consequently, great teachers set high standards but hold themselves, and their students, accountable for students' success. They have a ‘can do' attitude that instills self-confidence in students.
"They know exactly what skill or concept students are expected to master and how their mastery will be assessed. Students know this information as well."
"Great teachers are empathetic and engaged," says Keith Lutz, superintendent of Millard (NE) Public Schools. "When we interview teaching candidates, we put them through empathy screeners to demonstrate that they are child centered. It sounds simple, but we have to make sure that they actually like kids. They also need to be engaged, psychologically committed to their profession. Our great teachers look forward to coming to school every day. They are also flexible, able to multitask, and willing to collaborate in professional learning communities. Great teachers are professionals. They have a command of the classroom in the way they communicate with students. It's a calling and it's hard work."
"The best people to answer are students and their parents," says Jose Torres, superintendent of School District U-46 in Elgin, Illinois. "According to students, good teachers are firm, but fair. They create great relationships with students. They have a knack for creating a safe culture in the classroom, where students are safe to risk learning.
"Parents also know who the good teachers are. They say they are the ones who cause learning to happen at higher rates. Good teachers are organized, firm, and professional.
"But good is the enemy of the best. A great teacher is good, but a lot more. Great teachers seem to capture the artistry and science of teaching. They are highly conscious of their practice. They reflect often and consider how they can make their instruction better for the whole classroom. Do we have great teachers in our schools? Absolutely. Can we use more great teachers in our schools? You betcha!"
Jacqueline Heinze is a contributing editor at Scholastic Administr@tor.