What Great Teachers Have in Common

Happy new year!  This post marks the second half of my search to learn about education by watching great teachers in the classroom. Four months in, with the opportunity to reflect, I’m realizing that despite my epiphany in October that great teachers are not alike, the teachers I’m following do share five common practices.  And in the end, these practices are rooted in the same state of being.

Warning: I am about to drop the F-bomb.  No, not the one you’re probably thinking of.  I am going to drop even more fearsome F-bomb, a word so noxious and incendiary that I did not even want to use it in the title of this post.

That word is “faith.”

Wait—don’t block me from your inbox!  First of all, I’m not referring to a religious faith.  I have no idea whether the teachers I’m observing identify with any religion at all.  For all I know, they’re all die-hard Satanists, though that does seem kind of unlikely.  (But if it’s true, please let me know immediately.   There’s definitely a bestseller there, along with a blockbuster movie, a killer app and a ton of smoking-hot merchandise.)  No, when I say “faith” I mean an unwavering belief in something or someone, even in the absence of material evidence.  And what I’m realizing as I think about my project so far is all great teachers have faith—in their students, in the process of learning, and in themselves.  In fact, I’m coming to believe that you cannot be a teacher for very long without that faith.

In case you’re outraged by my use of this most unmeasurable word, I wish to point out that paradoxical as it may seem, my use of the word “faith” is entirely data-driven.  Based on four months of meticulous observation-based research, I’ve come to the conclusion that faith is the state of being I see underlying the five common practices I’ve observed in all the teachers I’m following.  (By “common practices” I do not mean “best practices,” a terms that I find annoying because of its science-iness.  I mean, unless you use the more accurate term “best practices at inducing growth in test scores even though those scores do not correlate with any meaningful measure of education like college graduation rates, employment or growth in fluid intelligence.” But not surprisingly, nobody ever uses that term.)

Here are the five practices I’ve observed in great teachers:

 1.              Great Teachers Listen to their Students

Listening is more than just sitting around hearing about their students’ problems, though many times these teachers do that.  What I mean is that instead of coming in with a pre-packaged educational agenda, great teachers first listen closely to the educational and socio-emotional needs of their students.  This listening can take the form of assessment tests, but also involves a deep awareness of and respect for the lives and home cultures of their students, whether they are at-risk students in a very low-income community or privileged students at an elite private school.  Great teachers know and understand the community in which they teach, and their teaching is a response to the needs of that community.

2.     Great Teachers Have an Authentic Vision for Their Students

Some of the teachers I’m following are interested in standards-based education and some are not. But the teachers I’m following, no matter what they think of state or national standards, all have a clear, personal, authentic vision of what they want for their students, and that vision is their primary motivation.  Because they listen to their students, the vision they have is a response to what their students need, not to some need of their own.  This vision does not have to be abstract; for some teachers, especially in skill-based subjects, their vision is mastery of a specific body of content, which they believe will be invaluable to their students.  For others, though, the vision has to do with personal qualities: inculcating a lifelong curiosity or turning their students into lifelong readers.  For an example of vision in action, check out this extremely moving post in the Good Men Project by one of Dennis Danziger’s students, who was astonished to find that he loved to read.  Ernesto Ponce would never have set out on this unconventional educational path if not for Dennis’ vision of what he wanted for his students.

3.              Great Teachers Have an Unequivocal Belief in All Students’ Potential

By “potential” I do not mean only that they believe that all of their students will go to college.  In some communities, like Harvard-Westlake, because of the extensive resources of the parent body, college is inevitable for most students before they’re even born, so a “belief” in this “potential” would not be meaningful.  In other settings, like the Special Ed classroom of the amazing Carlos Gordillo at the Roybal Educational Center, college is highly unlikely for most of his students.  What I mean instead by “potential” is that in all of the teachers I’m following, I see a belief, sometimes one that flies in the face of years of evidence to the contrary, that the student in front of them is capable of achievement beyond what anyone might think possible.  The teachers I’m following understand that life can take astonishing and unpredictable turns. They believe that their students all have the capacity for significant and meaningful growth—even if that growth does not happen this year in their classroom.  Because of that belief, they do not ever give up even on students who never appear to make progress.

4.     Great Teachers are Calm, Persistent Pushers

Remember the scene in “Mean Girls” when math teacher Tina Fey admits she’s “a pusher”?  The teachers I’m observing do not ever stop pushing their students no matter how low or high their level, and without regard to their students’ complaints or apparent lack of interest.  Here, I’m starting to see why I fell off the rails when I was teaching. Though I definitely listened to my students, believed in their potential and pushed them, I did not push them calmly, which was a gigantic source of aggravation for all of us.  Instead, I would get massively frustrated and go into an unpleasant spiral of cajoling in public and agonizing in private.  Maybe it’s a statistical fluke, but the teachers I’m following are for the most part fairly calm (except for the very high-energy Jennifer Macon, and even she is sort of calmly and confidently energetic.)  And all of them persist continually in the face of frustration.

5.              Great Teachers Practice Non-Attachment to Short-Term Results

Yes, in addition to dropping the F-bomb, I am also going neo-Buddhist on you here. I want to be clear: what I mean by “non-attachment” is not a lack of interest or caring.  The teachers I’m observing are definitely interested in short-term results, reading student work closely and tracking their students’ progress.  But—and this is where they diverge radically from the current perceived wisdom about teaching—they do not invest emotionally in those results or take them as evidence of success or failure, either for their students or for themselves.  The teachers I’m observing seem to take a much longer view of education.  They see their classes, and what their students learn from their classes, as something they hope their students will carry with them for the rest of their lives.  They understand that what their students carry with them may be quite unexpected or go beyond the narrow technical definition of the subject matter.  They are aware that they may never know the impact their class has had on someone.

Which leads me to faith.  Because at heart, all of these practices are rooted in a faith in the work itself, a faith in the value of the daily practice of showing up and engaging in the struggle of learning with their students.  People burn out when they lose this faith; that’s what happened to me.  Demoralized by a lack of the visible progress I wanted to see and sufficient evidence that I was making a difference, I became unable to keep going.

As we talk about the best way to attract and retain good teachers, what would happen if we talked about developing this faith—in our students, in the process of learning, and in ourselves?  In other words, what would happen if we all dropped the F-bomb?

By the way, please congratulate Cynthia Castillo for being nominated by the United Way and LAUSD as one of the 25 top teachers to watch!  A well-deserved honor for this extraordinary teacher!

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7 thoughts on “What Great Teachers Have in Common”

  1. You are so right. A teacher must have faith. Every day s/he enters that classroom and faces those children s/he says: I have faith – I believe in you.
    I have faith – I believe in your abilities.
    I have faith – I believe you can and will learn. Faith – I believe we can solve this problem and learn together.
    I have faith – I believe in my abilities to reach, however long it takes me.
    I have faith – I believe that you will take something valuable from this class every day, even if sometimes neither of us knows quite what that will be.
    I have faith – I believe that being a teacher is the most important work a person can do.

    Thank you for articulating your insight so well.

  2. Nicely done. Yes, one of the most foundational things I do for my students is believe in them, because so often they have trouble believing in themselves. Implicit in my teaching (and sometimes explicit) is the statement, “You can do this. You will be okay. It will all turn out okay. You really can do this.”

    1. Great point, Peter, and that’s so hard to quantify because often it’s just subtext. But I think students do sense that a teacher has faith in them, and that may make all the difference.

    1. Thanks, Erin! I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, the idea that you’re really placing faith in the future itself (I’m a Midwestern pessimist–the defensive crouch is my natural stance.) Maybe I should add “optimism” to my list of practices!

  3. Great post, as always, but why limit faith to just teachers? You can substitute the word “parents”, “bosses,” “friends.” Keep ’em coming!

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