#33 What Do Effective Teachers Do?

During a meeting this past week, an age-old question presented itself once again.

What makes a teacher effective?

It has been posed ever since I have been in the profession. It comes up in state legislatures as well as the halls of Congress and the Oval Office. Parents want to know the answer; school administrators raise the question; taxpayers want an answer, too.

In their book, Practical Magic: On the Frontlines of Teaching Excellence, Roueche, Milliron, and Roueche state that good teaching practices have been researched for more than half a century—and “repeated studies of student and faculty assessment of college faculty reveal that teaching characteristics most highly correlated with effectiveness fall into three categories: intellectual competencies, motivational attributes, and interpersonal skills.” (p. 54)

What do effective teachers do?

Can it be measured? Perhaps…but by what method? Testing? That covers one aspect—and may miss huge gains in non-tested areas.  What I have seen that passes for “evaluation of teaching” in nearly 30 years in the classroom is woefully lacking. You won’t be able to measure it by one or two administrative classroom visits per academic year.  Some of these “observations” neither see the beginning nor the end of a lesson; nor do they see the first day and the last day of a term to witness the affective gains so many of our students make—gains that will serve our students well in society at large.

Somewhere between “We will measure you based on scores and grades” and “There is NO way to measure effectiveness” there lies the truth.  Is it difficult? You bet….if it was easy, it would have been done years ago.

Unfortunately, we have non-teachers telling us what teaching is. Or people who have long since been removed from classroom teaching and see our students as data points on an Excel spreadsheet. They miss the fact that our students have whole lives.  

And it often seems that because everyone at one time or another has gone to school, that makes them qualified to teach. Have you ever heard of someone contemplating a career change say, “Hey, I think I will be a teacher. I have lots of experience to share.”   While experience is valuable, it takes much more than that to be an effective teacher.  (I am not a parent—but I have observed a lot of them. Does that make me a parent?  Does it make me qualified to make summary judgments and set down rules for all parents?)

So what do effective teachers do?  Here are just a few of the characteristics I have observed during my career:

  • ·         Engaging. Effective teachers know how to bring the students into a lesson so that the students can feel, taste, smell, and experience the material. 
  • ·         Relevance. Part of being engaging.  The effective teachers show students how material is related to their lives. This is not always easy—and not always achieved. But the good ones never stop aiming for relevance.
  • ·         Motivating. You do the first two items above, this follows. As a teacher I realize I am, at best, a momentary motivator. One of my many responsibilities is to help students tap into their internal motivation.
  • ·         Provide timely and meaningful feedback. Students need feedback now…not three weeks after an assignment was completed.  Of course, when the system piles more and more bodies in a classroom, this becomes an elusive goal. Can’t have it both ways: lots of students AND consistent meaningful feedback.
  • ·         Give a damn!   I have not figured out how to measure this one on a test.  The effective teachers I have worked with do care about their students. Call it what you want—tough love, zero tolerance—they show the students they are more than a name on the attendance page.  I make it a goal each semester to know every student’s name by the second week of the term.  Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? Until I hear students say, “I appreciate that you know who I am.”
  • ·         Are consistent. So many of the students I work with are not used to someone who is in it for the long-term. They are used to rules constantly changing.  Effective teachers say what they mean—and mean what they say.
  • ·         Mentor. Like it or not, teachers are role models. We mentor by our words—and our actions.  We expect students to be punctual—well, we better be punctual. We demand quality—we better give that same quality every day. We want civility—then we must treat everyone with respect.
  • ·         Prepare. Last year I witnessed a teacher speaking at (yes, “at” not “to”) an assembly of students.  This teacher was not prepared-did not know the audience needs, did not prepare appropriately.  Woefully ineffective.
  • ·         Learn—constantly.  Effective teachers are constantly learning.  They read, experience, and observe.
  •            Take care of themselves. Beyond intellectual growth, efffective techers take care of their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions of life.
  • ·         Advocate for their students. Teachers are in touch with students daily—more so than a lot of other adults in the students’ lives. We see their educational and personal needs. Effective teachers help students find their collective voices.
  • ·         Advocate for their profession. As cliché as it sounds, those who love teaching put their feet on the floor each morning and do not drag themselves to school. They are drawn to school. Effective teachers love their profession and do what they can to educate others as to what they, their students, and their communities need.
  • ·         Make a difference. Effective teachers make a difference in the lives of their students.  And we may not even know that for years down the road.  Recently a student I had more than 10 years ago at the college told me that I did more for her writing skills than any class.  She reminded me, “And I did not like it one bit when you graded my paper with all those red marks!”  Not sure how many of the tests that are used to measure teacher effectiveness reach out ten years down the road. But in how many cases is that when the fruits of effective teaching ripen?

    Video recommendation for the week:
    Taylor Mali says it forcefully in this in-your-face video clip that has had more than 1.5 million views.  (Thanks to a colleague from Arkansas who shared it with me.)

When we deal with the whole person, why in the world are we measuring success based on one or two measures? Bottom line: Effective teachers make a difference!

That IS what they do and that is what they make.

© Steve Piscitelli and Steve Piscitelli’s Blog, 2011.


About stevepiscitelli

Community Advocate-Author-Pet Therapy Team Member
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5 Responses to #33 What Do Effective Teachers Do?

  1. Marilyn says:

    Definitely LIKE! I’m ready for one of your classes. I hope you teach FUN! 🙂


  2. Pingback: A Blogger’s Retrospective: 2011 in Review « Steve Piscitelli's Blog

  3. Pingback: Success Strategies for the Classroom—and the Business World « Steve Piscitelli's Blog

  4. Matt R says:

    I believe that teachers are the future for students. Teachers make or break the student body by how they engage the students. For example if like we spoke in class about have the same mono tone and “blah” posture or attitude more then likely your gonna loose the students and there attention all togeather. Clicking with the students is key. I know that may comes as a task being a teacher having alot more students is harder then us students but it’s key. Try and keep and get them motivated words of encouragement if you see or feel the student’s failing pull them aside privately let them know what there short comings are and try and help. I feel the whole no child/student left behind is a good motto and if more teachers and students believed in that then we as a country wouldn’t be reling on other countries for natural resources and or even everyday appliances.


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