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Voices of Highly Effective Teachers

by Gary Gordon

How important are teachers to how much students actually learn? A study by the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System that incorporated more than 10 years' worth of data on student learning in that state provided this answer: teachers account for more of students' achievement gains year-to-year than any other factor. Moreover, students of some teachers consistently show greater gains from year to year than students with other teachers.

What explains the difference in performance? Gallup research indicates that highly effective teachers possess three important characteristics: subject-matter knowledge, refined teaching skills, and most importantly, talent. Gallup defines talent as naturally recurring thoughts, feelings and behaviors that can be productively applied. Talent is part of the person, seemingly intangible, and -- unlike knowledge and skills -- not learned. (See "Best Teachers in a Class of Their Own" in Related Items.)

To learn more about teaching excellence, Gallup has been working with a group of highly effective teachers (identified as such through the consistently high performance of their students) from a county school district in Tennessee. Last month, we conducted three focus groups with some of these highly effective teachers. The focus groups allowed Gallup researchers to study the teachers' responses to open-ended questions, generating insights about these teachers' underlying talents, and helping hone tools to identify teachers with talents most like those who have proven themselves highly effective.

The results reflected Gallup's ongoing study of great teachers, indicating their common characteristics tend to coalesce into three areas: their motivation to teach, the relationships they create, and the way they structure learning. Following is a closer look at the way each of these factors manifested in our recent focus groups.

Common Factors of Exceptional Teachers

1. Motivation for Teaching

  • These teachers claim teaching as a natural right for them. They respond to a mission that calls them to teaching.
  • Half of the focus group participants have other teachers in their families.
  • They became teachers because of, and in some cases in spite of, teachers that they had when they were students. Both positive and negative role models shaped how these teachers view teaching and learning. As one participant said, "I had some pretty bad teachers and thought if I were up there, this is how I would do it. When it was time to make a choice in career, I thought ‘I can do this.' I can make it interesting for kids; I can make it where they want to learn."
  • Teaching is enjoyable for them, and they believe that learning can be just as enjoyable for their students.
  • They set high standards, both for themselves and for their students. They expect their students to succeed and overtly communicate their successes to them. They feel a keen responsibility for their students.

One teacher made a comment that summed the depth of motivation felt by many others: "There is no peace until you figure out what to do for a child who is not succeeding."

2. Winning Students Over

  • These teachers possess a drive to build positive, caring relationships with students.
  • They let their students know that teachers, including themselves, are human and imperfect. One participant described building relationships as "… sharing some of yourself. They (students) need to see you outside of that teacher thing."
  • They see their students outside of teaching. They take part in student activities, attend events, and know about student interests.
  • Respect is a key ingredient of success for these teachers. They give it to students and expect it in return.

"Kids are like animals," one participant said of the instinctiveness with which children relate to their teachers. "Kids know who likes them, who's in education because they like kids as opposed to getting a check."

3. Helping Students Learn

  • Learning, and then sharing what they've learned, is key for these teachers. As one teacher explained, "When something doesn't work, you just go back and try something else. That's why you have to be a learner."
  • They provide learning activities that create excitement, enthusiasm and drama for students.
  • Their lesson plans are based upon student needs and adaptable to unanticipated events. They maximize learning time.
  • They structure their teaching so students can learn, and "learn how to learn" in the process.
  • These teachers advocate for students and their needs. They are not afraid to step forward and challenge procedures -- and school leaders -- to do what is right for students.

One participant suggested enthusiasm for learning is key to students' success: "If you can get the kids excited about learning, you can just step back. You have to find a creative way to get them enthused and excited."

Key Points

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act requires every state to guarantee that all teachers are "highly qualified" by the 2005-2006 school year. In order to be "highly qualified," teachers generally must have a state license to teach and be competent in the subject area they teach, as demonstrated through an academic major or by passing a subject-matter test.

But while they are important in their own right, licenses and subject-matter competence are not enough. At best, they create a minimum requirement for teachers. These highly effective teachers in Tennessee illustrate the idea that we must look beyond the lowest common denominators of teacher quality, and identify teachers with the natural talents needed to help students learn.

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