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How to Spot and Develop Extreme Teaching Talent

How to Spot and Develop Extreme Teaching Talent

by Valerie J. Calderon

Ella came home one fall day from third grade spilling tears. Like generations of third graders before her, she was tripped up by multiplication tables. To help gain confidence and practice her math skills, Ella began visiting with her neighbor and tutor, Ms. O.

Ms. O used games and various methods targeted at the most important concepts Ella needed to learn. She helped Ella feel capable and have a little fun all while learning her times tables. Colorful flashcards and a white board were some of the tools in Ms. O's toolbox. While these tools were helpful, they were not the game changer for Ella. It was Ms. O herself.

Ms. O possesses unusual talent for helping students learn. She saw problems from Ella's perspective, calmed her fear of failing, and remained focused on the learning outcome. She persisted through the challenges with a hint of joy because Ms. O had dispelled any lingering doubt in Ella's mind that she could succeed.

Over three decades of Gallup research reveals teachers with extreme talent for the role possess the following talents:

1. They have a strong drive to see their students achieve their maximum potential. These teachers are relentless pursuers of their students' achievements. They personally own the success of their students, and they persist through stumbling blocks that threaten to deter their progress.

2. They establish learning environments centered on close relationships. These teachers have a strong belief that relationships are essential for learning. These teachers' level of care is intense, and it is focused on the best outcomes for students. Their students respond to their care with increased effort and motivation to learn. Such teachers help individuals value one another and each individual's uniqueness. Those with extreme talent for teaching are able to establish trust, which inspires an engaging, energetic, positive, and even joy-filled learning space.

3. They promote an innovative yet ordered classroom structure. The most talented teachers are likewise able to structure their classroom learning environments in a way that carefully balances freedom with discipline. They invite creativity while never surrendering purposefulness and order. They are prepared for teaching, but flexible enough to respond in the moment to teaching opportunities. Extremely talented teachers are always busy finding new ways to help students discover and learn.

Very few people can consistently demonstrate each of these three qualities of highly effective teachers. But, when schools can increase their proportion of extremely talented teachers, they increase the likelihood that students will be highly engaged and set up for success.

Gallup finds that a small proportion of teacher applicants from its extensive TeacherInsight database possess extreme talent for the role. Finding and identifying highly talented teachers, as early as possible, is a treasure hunt our nation can ill afford to ignore.

We can and must find and develop such teacher treasures -- the ones who can grow up to impact young people just like Ms. O. Right now, children are sitting in elementary school classrooms all over America. They are learning not only multiplication and long division, but also about great teaching. Ella dreams about being a special education teacher one day. She may not recall all of the methods Ms. O used to teach math, and by the time Ella is old enough to teach, the curricula will have been reinvented a dozen times over. However, Ella will remember how Ms. O made her feel about learning.

Extreme talent for teaching -- for connecting with and developing young humans -- is an innate and enduring one, so we must identify teacher treasures early and intentionally. We must search for them, find them, and invest in their talent for developing others. Those young teacher treasures are the children who volunteer to help others, they delight in others' victories and successes, and they are hard-working friends. When we spot such teaching talent, we must nurture and encourage it, help them to mature, and steer them toward pathways to becoming an effective educator. We must polish those young, talented teacher treasures so they may propel the next generation of students into a future in which they, too, can do what they do best.

For insights about what leaders can do to improve engagement and student achievement in their schools, read Gallup's State of America's Schools: The Path to Winning Again in Education report.

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