This is a topic on the minds of many educators and parents these days and now the title of a new book by Elizabeth Green. The subtitle, “How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone”) suggests a solution will be offered to a problem for which a number of solutions have already been tried. Her book highlights the huge gap between what the best teachers do and how what they do has been evaluated.
Green sees the teacher training discussion as having two points of view: on one side an argument for accountability, on the other a belief in autonomy. Both sides believe in “the myth of the natural born teacher.” The accountability side wants test scores as a way of identifying the gifted teachers in order to get the others out, while those for autonomy want to give the gifted teachers creative control over their classrooms. Green’s view is that good teaching is the result of skill, not inborn talent, and can be taught.
With so many “experts” weighing in on this question of what makes a good teacher, it seemed that maybe the best expert to consult would be a student. What follows is a discussion with an eleven year old about to enter the sixth grade, about what she thinks makes a good teacher:
“Someone who is nice.” What makes a teacher nice? “If someone is going out of line, not being really strict but in a nice way putting them back in their place. If the teacher notices someone fooling around, not in front of the class but after class ask what’s going on? Why are you fooling around? Is there a problem? Bad teachers are too strict, they talk to you in front of the class and they are not very good at explaining things.”
What makes a teacher good? “A good teacher does not teach you everything at once but teaches it in parts. Also, doesn’t teach it once but several times, especially if kids don’t get it. Sometimes kids don’t want to tell you they don’t get it.”
How can a teacher tell if a kid is not getting it? “If the kid is not paying attention, looking around. If it seems like the kid is having a hard time. A good teacher expects highly of you but gives you really good teaching.”
“In earlier grades teachers would give you a hint if you were not getting it – not all the time. But by this time they don’t do that.” How can a teacher tell if the kids are getting it? “After she’s done teaching she can tell by the test papers. Maybe the kids who are not doing so well don’t understand what was taught. Some kids are really smart and get everything. Other kids are not. But it’s not always the teacher’s fault. It could be the kids – how their brain functions – not the teacher. Other times it could be that the teacher didn’t explain it that well. That’s what’s good about parent/teacher conferences. The parent can explain about the kid and they can tell if it’s about the kid’s difficulty or if it’s that the teacher didn’t explain it that well.”
“In my opinion, good teaching is teaching in different sections. It is going over the material slowly. I like smart boards because you can see it, write on it and see what you are learning.”
I asked what she thought of the tests that are being given these days as a way of seeing what kids have learned. “The tests now are really hard and don’t give you a good judgment of kids’ grades. You don’t know what you’ve really learned because the questions get so hard – even stuff beyond your grade – so you can’t tell what you know.”
Several interesting points emerged from this discussion. One was the importance of teacher’s making sure that kids are getting what they are teaching. They need to understand whether they are teaching the material in a way that children can understand or whether an individual child has a specific difficulty that needs attention rather than discipline.
A related point is the use of tests in this regard. This student was differentiating between tests the teacher gives to see if the children are “getting it” and the other statewide tests they are now being given, the first being useful, the second being unreliable and not helping students know what they have learned. The “teacher tests” are for the benefit of the children, the other tests now given are being used to judge the teachers.
If we want to build better teachers, maybe we should be learning from the students who the good ones are.