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Best Teachers in a Class of Their Own

by Gary Gordon, EdD

President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act promises to make statewide accountability testing as perennial as spring flowers. The new law requires every state to set standards for what students should know and to annually test students on these standards by the 2005-2006 school year. In states that currently have standardized testing, the search for ways to improve students' scores is well under way and will accelerate with the new mandates. (For more on this subject, see "Standardized Testing and School Improvement" in Related Items.)

Results from a recent Public Education Network/Education Week poll indicate that nearly one in three Americans believes that the best strategy for improving students' scores is to improve teacher quality. Likewise, nearly 37% of Americans cited the quality of teachers and schools as important in determining how well educated a student is upon graduating from high school. The public's perception of the importance of teacher quality is supported by William Sanders' work with the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. The teacher, Sanders' research maintains, is the most important factor impacting student achievement, more important than class size, ability grouping, location of the school and other typically mentioned factors.

The Conventional Wisdom on Improving Teacher Quality

The conventional wisdom on how to improve teacher quality is to increase teachers' subject-matter knowledge and teaching skills. This is the priority of most school districts as they use their staff development resources to pay for teacher training. School districts severely affected by teacher shortages and forced over the years to hire uncertified teachers seek to reach a minimal level of teacher quality simply by hiring teachers who have proper certification. (See "Will Teacher Shortage Solutions Make the Grade?" in Related Items.)

But focusing on teacher knowledge, skills and certification, while critically important, is not enough to create excellent teachers. As students, many of us had teachers who were knowledgeable and skilled, but consistently failed to communicate what they knew in ways that allowed us to learn.

The Missing Link

Think for a moment of the best teachers you have ever known. What did these teachers do to make you remember them as special?

Without question, the teachers knew the subject matter and were skillful in their teaching. But chances are, the things that made these teachers special in your life were the personal qualities that made them different from other teachers. Gallup refers to these qualities as talents. Talent can be simply defined as naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.

Thirty years of Gallup research suggest that the most successful people in any field possess identifiable talents that set them apart from their peers. Talent vividly manifests itself in sports, as well as in the performing and visual arts. For example, Tiger Woods may be a skilled and knowledgeable golfer, but he would not be the champion that he is without natural talent. However, what seems so clear in these settings becomes cloudy when we think of teachers. Our tendency is to assume that anyone can be a teacher with the right training and determination. But the evidence, as many principals will confirm, is that the right talents for a job, when absent, are very difficult to teach. They know, like other managers, that it is easier to train people who already possess the right talents and build on them, rather than trying to develop what is not naturally there.

The Best Are Different

Through 30 years of research in more than 1,000 school districts, Gallup identified the "best" teachers, as identified by principals and student ratings. Gallup has found that the best teachers have measurable talents in three important areas:

Motivation – These talents explain why a person wants to teach and why he/she stays in teaching.

Relationships – Connections with people can occur in different ways, and these talents provide insight into how a teacher develops relationships with students, as well as colleagues and parents.

Structuring Learning – These talents describe the various ways teachers set up and stimulate learning.

The schools most likely to succeed in improving student learning will be the ones that seek ways to select teachers with the talents like their best teachers. The students in our schools deserve nothing less.

Next week, I will begin a series of articles on the specific talents that great teachers possess. I will first explore "Caring", a talent that great teachers use to develop relationships with students and impact learning.


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