What Makes a Great Teacher

Thanks to contributor Lane Meyer for sending me the link to a great article by Amanda Ripley on The Atlantic Online, What Makes a Great Teacher? Props to Teach for America for finding an innovative way to attack the problem with educational quality in the U.S.

A fear I have of Teach for America’s success is that smart people will take Teach of America’s lessons to try and make poor and mediocre teachers into great teachers.

In one section, the article features a highly effective Teach for America teacher, Mr. Taylor, and a regular fourth grade teacher who seems to set her students back.   Improvement in education will come when we recognize that key isn’t making the fourth grade teacher into Mr. Taylor by forcing her to use Mr. Taylor’s methods.  Rather, we need to find a Mr. Taylor to replace the fourth grade teacher.  That teacher doesn’t have to use Mr. Taylor’s methods.  That teacher need only produce good results.

I call that effective talent management.

Evaluating talent should be the job of the school administrators.  They should evaluate test scores, observe the classroom, speak with parents and use that information to make fact based evaluations of teacher talent just as a sales manager evaluates sales performance, observes customer interactions and speaks with customers to judge the performance his salespeople.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no hope for the fourth grade teacher to keep her job if it were up to me.   She would just need to produce better results.  Some clues are given in the article. She has a bad mental model and is not a good self-evaluator.

If I were her manager, I might provide this feedback:  “Mrs. Fourth Grade Teacher, You blame the parents for your lackluster results, while Mr. Taylor takes the same kids and teaches them something.  Have you considered that the problem might not be the parents?  I want you to take ownership of your results or I will need to find someone who can.  If you are truly interested in helping your students master the material we hired you to teach them, then I suggest you sit with Mr. Taylor and learn just how it is that he’s able to do his job. ”

Simple feedback.

I also liked Teach for America’s finding that their most effective teachers were persistent self-evaluators.  I think that characteristic is a strong factor for many successful individuals.  It comes down to simple feedback.   Mr. Taylor doesn’t need a manager to tell him his results are off.  He can see it and change his behavior to improve.  The fourth grade teacher doesn’t evaluate herself.  Her defense mechanism is “it’s the parents’ fault.”  That keeps her from making an honest self evaluation.

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