Pedagogy, teaching

Have I missed all the tweets on this article?

Yesterday I got a copy of the new issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine, which features a really interesting article entitled “What Makes a Great Teacher.” The article deals with the Teach for America program and the ways in which it constantly refines its formula for determining which applicants will make successful teachers. I’m surprised that the way I first discovered this article came via the passé medium of print (not Twitter or my RSS Reader), but in spite of how I discovered it, I’d encourage others to read it (and check out the webpage; its got some really great clips, like this one):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Here’s a few noteworthy excerpts that struck me as particularly interesting. Mostly these quotations address characteristics of successful teachers and practical classroom strategies:

Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness. […]

Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls. […]

Mr. Taylor follows a very basic lesson plan often referred to by educators as “I do, we do, you do.” He does a problem on the board. Then the whole class does another one the same way. Then all the kids do a problem on their own. During the “we” portion of the lesson, Mr. Taylor calls on students to help solve the problem. But he does this using the “equity sticks”—a can of clothespins, each of which has a student’s name on it. That way, he ensures a random sample. The shy ones don’t get lost. […]

What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer.

While this article doesn’t deal directly with technology in the classroom (in fact, many of its examples, given that it focuses on Teach For America, deal with school communities that struggle with an extreme lack of resources), it does speak to the issues of innovation, self-reinvention, the desire for constant improvement, and the willingness to challenge oneself to overcome obstacles. While social media and technology tools provide a venue for these elements, certainly this same type of self-driven professional growth can take place without those resources.

So, what connection, if any exists between these traits and those who blog (presumably reflectively) or actively participate in the edu-blogging/tweeting world? Can these activities foster the characteristics of “successful teachers” (as defined by the article) or are those who are successful more likely to be drawn to these online communities?

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2 thoughts on “Have I missed all the tweets on this article?

  1. Western Dave says:

    The problem with this approach is it works well for teaching as a 3-5 year program but not for a career. Burn out is high among this group. (Check out KIPP’s faculty retention rates). For those of us with families, such dedication is nigh impossible. The key piece is the reinvention of practice, I think. The best teachers do seem to 1) constantly add to their toolbox and 2) keep a level of “comfortably uncomfortable” in their practice and nurture that with their students. “Comfortably uncomfortable” means you are modeling risk taking with your students and encouraging failure as a path to success.

    • Nate says:

      Thanks for the comment, Dave. I absolutely agree. The most dangerous thing to do professionally is to slip into the idea that you’ve got it all figured out and no longer need to question your curriculum, lessons, tests, quizzes, etc. That seems like a sure-fire way to become alienated both from the profession and from one’s students.

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