Monday, February 8, 2010

What Makes a Great Teacher?

Bill Gates is someone I admire. He has billions of dollars and absolutely no financial incentive to ever work again, yet he continues to devote his time, energy and resources to worthy causes, such as global health and, recently, education.

Gates recently committed $45 million dollars to the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, a study designed to identify the characteristics of good teaching. The idea, of course, is to then replicate those characteristics in classrooms across the country.

Not everyone thinks it's money well-spent. Retired teacher James D. Starkey wrote a thought-provoking op-ed for Education Week, an op-ed which is inspiring a fair amount of controversy.

Teaching, Starkey says, isn't about tricks and techniques. Teaching and learning, he says, "happen whenever significant adults interact with and direct children. You can’t stop it."

I argued a similar point in a column I wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year. And while teachers weren't happy with me (I argued that an interested adult who supports and encourages the children's curiousity is an effective teacher -- whether or not that adult holds a teacher's certificate), I stand by my point. Children are hard-wired to learn. It is virtually impossible for a child to get through a day without learning anything. It's even more impossible when that child is in the care of an attentive adult.

I don't know about your kids, but mine constantly ask questions. Some are rather mundane ("Can I have oatmeal for breakfast?" and some are thought-provoking ("What effect did tanks have on World War II?") All of them -- even the oatmeal question -- inspire discussion and learning.

The debate, though, doesn't stop with me or Mr. Starkey. The debate as to what makes a good teacher will go on and on. Add your voice to the debate. What do you think makes a good teacher?


  1. Well, I just returned from a morning workshop with John Taylor Gatto, and he had some really intersting, thought provoking ideas to share. He certainly is not a fan of "more school". His latest book, Weapons of Mass Instruction is sitting here next to me, and I am half way through Dumbing us Down. Certainly teachers are offended by these ideas, they threaten their very existence. Whatever would we do with little children that question the system? Mr. Gatto recommended we all read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, so that is in my Amazon Cart now. I could go on and on, but I will save it for later :) But before I go, let's ponder the question, what is it we want our schools to do? This question needs to be answered before we can improve the schools.

  2. A person that has a good grasp of reality in all aspects of life is a good teacher, and for some reason most parents who home school their children usually lack this entirely.

  3. I agree that learning happens in the classroom, out of the classroom, outside, at museums, even at entertainment venues. I think anyone who enlightens another in any way is a teacher.

    I had some teachers in my education who did fairly little for me the entire year. I had others I'll be grateful for forever.

    That said, I think there is a point at which one person's knowledge and a child's need for information/education may diverge. In that case, it's the wise "teacher" who encourages the child to look to other resources/teachers to guide them.

  4. Anonymous, there was not enough room here for me to respond, so I did so on my own blog. You are welcome to come on over and read it!

    Jenny, you are so kind to let these comments slide! Your journalistic instincts for freedom of speech and uncensored information are admirable, even when someone insults you directly. You are a super home school mom, and very much in touch with reality!

  5. Anonymous: All of us here in reality have real names, and faces, and the cajones to reveal them, most especially when making contrary arguments.

    Jennifer: The growing popularity and success of the charter school movement proves your point---that a teaching license is not (necessarily) a requirement to be an excellent teacher. I agree with you and Starkey---that a good teacher is anyone who sparks curiosity---but I believe a great teacher is someone who inspires learners to take their curiosities, transform them into objectives, and take actions that will benefit themselves and humanity.

    Teachers are no longer sentinels of knowledge---Google has rendered that role obsolete---but they are still key characters in the shaping of a learner's worldview.