Great Teacher gets to work a few minutes early so she* can chat with the other Early Birds. Having one-on-one non-academic conversations with each student is crucial. This helps students feel respected, and in turn, it helps them respect you back (which reduces behavioral issues). Great teacher happily discusses her weekend with her students at a level that is appropriate for them, with language that is casual, but not in a way that makes Great Teacher seem dumb or ditzy.
Great Teacher takes attendance in an interesting way – there’s often a question of the day, which helps students show off their interests, skills, and creativity, and helps Great Teacher learn more about her students so that she can gear her instruction towards them better. It also helps her get a sense of their mood that day, see if a student looks particularly blue that day.
Great Teacher’s first period class starts off with some enticement that also activates’ the students’ minds. “Who remembers what we did last class?” Students stare blankly. Great Teacher then writes a fill-in-the-blank sentence on the board. “Whoever knows the answer, grab a whiteboard marker and write it in… and remember, there are at least 3 different answers, so more than one of you can come up.” 5 students run up to the front. There are only 2 markers, and the first student to grab a marker just stands there and reads the question.
“Hey, that’s not fair,” declare the little arbiters of good and evil.
Great Teacher waits for a moment, since she knows the students will not break into a physical altercation, and in fact, it’s healthy and appropriate for them to sort out their tiny disturbances. Indeed, 3 seconds later, another student who has gone up to the board simply requests the whiteboard marker and writes the first answer on the board. Drama averted.
“You took mine,” says another student who’s up at the board.
“Remember, there are two more answers,” reminds Great Teacher.
One more answer gets written on the board and then all the students sit down. But Great Teacher does not tell them the answer. No, Great Teacher does not teach helplessness. Great Teacher says, “You are all responsible for finding the last answer. I want to be able to call on any one of you for the answer. Think of all the resources you have…” Here, Great Teacher pauses while the students think about what resources they have, once again, reinforcing the fact that they all need to be active participants and she will not do all of the thinking for them.
“You can ask someone who knows, you can use your notes from last class, you can look in your workbook, you can use the computer at the back of the class.” By the time Great Teacher finishes this sentence, 4 eager hands have been raised. Great Teacher pauses for longer. All 4 hands are male hands, and she knows that girls often take longer to raise their hands (due to confidence-related issues, not brain functioning, don’t worry). Another 30 seconds and 6 more hands have gone up, 3 of which are female. Great Teacher calls on a student who rarely raises his hand.
Great Teacher makes eye contact, but then buys him some processing time to make sure his phrasing comes out okay by re-reading the sentence on the board and the two correct answers on the board. This also helps other students who prefer to process things auditorily.
Finally, the student answers, but that’s not all. Great Teacher wants to know how he knew the answer. He shares that he looked in his notes, and then also checked with his seatmate to make sure he was right. Great Teacher has not only activated prior knowledge in all of her students’ minds (which will make it easier for them to understand and encode new knowledge), but she has taught them how to learn.
And all this takes less than 3 minutes. Which means that I can’t give you this precise of a play-by-play of the rest of the day, lest I write a whole novel by accident. But I can continue to outline trends I’ve noticed in Great Teacher:
Great Teacher is intentional. Great Teacher is human, so this doesn’t always mean that Great Teacher doesn’t make up something 5 minutes before the class, but Great Teacher has known for 3 days that she has wanted to teach about strategically using subordinating conjunctions, and that incubation period has led to this great discovery of using quotes from the Hunger Games to illustrate how Suzanne Collins’ use of subordinate conjunctions demonstrates the characters’ interconnectedness (at the semi-last minute).
With rare exceptions, though, Great Teacher is prepared. This is part and parcel with intentionality, but more than that, this allows Great Teacher to differentiate. For Great Teacher, there is no other way to teach – it’s not just a buzz word for Great Teacher (and in fact, I’ve rarely heard Great Teacher say “differentiate.” Great Teacher would likely just say “teach”).
Great Teacher reaches all of her students. Sometimes this is possible because Great Teacher has a teaching assistant, other support staff, or a small class size. Even in the absence of these, however, Great Teacher naturally uses technology to individualize learning, uses at least two modalities to teach (often three), and uses her knowledge of her students to strategically call on them to help their strengths shine.
But Great Teacher isn’t just about pats on the back. Great Teacher has honest conversations about failure, about difficulty, about the need to have a Growth Mindset. Great Teacher makes mistakes, and she turns them into such fantastic teaching moments, I daresay some of the mistakes are intentional, too!
Great Teacher assesses constantly. Great Teacher uses every measure of Exit Card imaginable. Great Teacher asks for raised hands, for funny gestures, for “voting with your feet,” for notes on an index cards, for notes on the board, for a keyword as you exit, for a completed Google Form quiz. Great Teacher knows what her students know, and helps students become self-aware of what they know, too. Then, Great Teacher teaches, while consistently reminding students of how they are learning, and encouraging them to assess their learning (directly, or through modeling).
Like everything else Great Teachers uses, Great Teacher uses games and technology meaningfully. Great Teacher views these as tools, not as rewards. Great Teacher knows that games and technology make students engaged, and engagement leads to greater attention, encoding, and recall of information. Great Teacher also knows that some games and technological tools provide additional context that “real life” simply cannot provide.
Great Teacher teaches things that matter. Great Teacher has a curriculum, but Great Teacher also has Essential or Guiding Questions. Great Teacher wants her students to know about the big questions of the world, and she uses her curriculum to teach them just that. How are societies made? What is identity? How did the world develop? What is justice? How and why do animals and humans adapt?
Great Teacher doesn’t provide busywork. Great Teacher does provide homework that is intended to be brief, be independent, and be helpful in consolidating information in a student’s brain.
Great Teacher holds students accountable because Great Teacher holds herself accountable. Great Teacher is mindful of one student’s actions on the group, and she does more complicated statistics and weighing than any computer can do about when and how it is worth it to intervene with one individual (especially when it’s at the expense of a class).
Great Teacher asks, “Why?” all the time, for Great Teacher knows there is a reason when a child misbehaves. There is always a reason, and it’s never because the child is evil or lazy.
Great Teacher is aware of the importance of the environment on her students’ learning. Great Teacher’s classroom is therefore somewhat flexible, and intentionally has space for multiple types of learners and types of learning.
Great Teacher is cognizant of burnout and Great Teacher has hobbies and friends and family that are important to her. But Great Teacher knows the stakes are high, so there’s no slacking for Great Teacher. Great Teacher has developed a routine that works for her so that she can do the most and the most productive work on a regular basis.
And Great Teacher asks for help as Great Teacher knows her limits. Great Teacher knows when a student is not learning, despite trying one, two, three, twenty-five different accommodations (for Great Teacher doesn’t give up easily). Great Teacher speaks honestly with parents. Great Teacher does not deliver bad news. Great Teacher delivers opportunities. Great Teacher invites parents to tell her what they know, and shares what she knows. Great Teacher values her relationships with caregivers.
Great Teacher turns off during breaks. This took Great Teacher a few years to achieve, but now when there is a holiday or summer break, Great Teacher reboots. It is essential for Great Teacher to remain human and to be able to “turn off.” It doesn’t mean that Great Teacher doesn’t think about her students during these times. For one, she can’t help it. More importantly, they bring her joy, so why shouldn’t she think of them?
Great Teacher deals with administration who rambles about test scores, with scheduling changes, with things that are outside of her control. But despite whatever else is going on in her school, at the end of the day, all Great Teacher cares about is what is best for her students. Because that’s what Great Teachers do.
* I am using the pronoun “she” as this portrait is loosely based on a handful of teachers whom I consider to be Great Teachers, most of whom happen to be female. It is not part of a larger commentary on gender & teaching, so please don’t view it as such