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What makes a great teacher?

January 29, 2010

Recently, a parent dropped off the January/February issue of The Atlantic. The magazine contained an article by Amanda Ripley titled, “What makes a great teacher?” This is the age-old question in education.

Here in Saline we are fortunate.  We attract top quality applicants, have a comprehensive selection process, and retain our staff.  This is not the case in all districts. However, to remain a premier school district in Michigan, we need to focus on continuous improvement.  For example, last year we implemented a screening test to provide another piece of information to review during the selection process.

Another issue is how does one capture the entire story of a teacher’s impact?  Are test scores the method?  I’m personally skeptical of using test scores to assess overall performance – but it does matter – particularly over a several year time period.  The process highlighted in the magazine of the Teach for America study used test scores but also included classroom visits.

One researcher noticed he’d get a similar response from all of the high performing teachers.

“They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.”

Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

They report that tendencies seemed to emerge.  These teachers maintain focus, involve students and parents in the learning process, plan exhaustively, and exhibit perseverance against the menace of not only one’s income level, but bureaucracy and budget deficits.

In fact, overall they determined “grit” and a history of perseverance were key indicators of teacher success.  The article goes into more detail about some of the other key factors.

It strikes me that perseverance is also an excellent trait for principals and superintendents.  Maintaining focus, involving staff and community in the decision making process, planning exhaustively, and persevering against bureaucracy and budget issues…  sounds like an effective strategy to me.

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