What a Great Teacher Looks Like

It’s June – 3 weeks left to go in the NYC public school year and while there are projects being wrapped up, publishing parties happening, musical performances being staged there is one activity that takes precedence over all others – jockeying for next year’s teacher.  As Co-President of the PA (we have no “T” in our association) I am inundated with emails, parents tapping me on the shoulder or even calling me to ask how they can request a specific teacher for their child next year.  My answer is always, you can’t.  That doesn’t stop the majority of parents from trying.  And I totally get it.  No one wants to feel that they did nothing while everyone around them made their preferences known.  In the midst of the teacher evaluation debate this always makes me shake my head.  Want to know who is an effective teacher?  Ask the principal which teacher every parent is pining for.  Really.

This year one of our teachers won a Blackboard Award for Excellence in Teaching.  She was my daughter’s second grade teacher and I whole-heartedly agree that she is a truly gifted teacher.   And so was my other daughter’s second grade teacher.  One of the benefits and detriments of having twins is experiencing two different teachers in the same grade every year.  The view is particularly interesting with my girls because they are identical twins and have exactly the same academic ability and very similar behavior in class.  We joke every year that we could just have a group parent-teacher conference and save ourselves the scheduling headache.  But my point is that both teachers were very different in style, personality and teaching background – and both were highly effective as the evaluators like to say.  But effective is such a bland, meaningless word.  More than “effective” they were equally engaging, challenging, creative and attuned to the needs of the kids.

I remember my best teachers because they were the ones that sparked my love of learning and opened up new areas of interest or a deeper understanding of subjects that I previously thought I had learned but had only scratched the surface of.  But my list of best teachers is probably different from that of classmates with whom I went through most of my school life.  (as a totally topical aside, Anthony Weiner’s mom was my math teacher twice in middle and high school and she was a total kook and fabulous teacher)  I had an english teacher in middle school who introduced me to Wallace Stevens and William Faulkner and changed my entire view of literature.  There is no doubt in my mind I am a writer today because of his class.  But he was also hated by many students because he was so strict and demanding.  I bet even those haters would give him high marks as an effective teacher since he pushed them so hard.

So what makes a great teacher?  What is it that all of these parents are clamoring for when they wait for hours outside the principal’s door hoping to get in their plea?  First and foremost in my experience is a teacher with a fantastic, well planned, absorbing curriculum that gets the kids thinking, working across mediums and producing something tangible to show and be proud of.  Those coveted teachers have classrooms that run well – there are clear rules, structure and respect.  The kids know what to expect and know what is expected of them.  There is also the magic dust on top of all of that – and that is the sense that this teacher really, truly gets your kid.  When you hear parents talk about these teachers you will often hear them talk with awe about how the teacher understood their child’s strengths, weaknesses, struggles and specific quirks in a way that made them feel like real teaching could and would happen.  I am convinced that in many ways a child’s ability to learn and learn well comes down to this feeling of safety and trust in the classroom.  That sense of security comes from feeling like a teacher is on your side and is invested in you.  Without that everything is an uphill battle.

When I look forward to next year I am just as terrified as all of the other parents – even more so since I need 2 great teachers every year for my girls.  I’m not hoping for the best test prepper.  Actually I would like the teacher who does the least test prep because it’s all coming naturally through the curriculum.  But most of all I want the teacher who is going to look into my daughter’s face and see the eager, passionate learner that lurks behind her big brown eyes and be excited and challenged by it.  It’s a lot to ask for I know, and I’ve been outrageously lucky so far, but to me that genuine love of teaching is what creates the genuine love of learning and that is what school should be all about.

11 replies on “What a Great Teacher Looks Like”

  1. Such an interesting topic. Your girls are equals academically, is that possible? While I enjoy rules and structure I also loved some of the “kooks”. I loved the teachers who had couches instead of desks and the ones who made you feel you were on a ride as much as in a class. I loved the passion and excitement and the teachers who thought I was brilliant (who doesn’t like that). I had an experience with not-so-great teachers with one of my boys this year. They were cookie cutter, insincere people that just didn’t get him or boys or life. I disliked them and so did he. The good news? New teachers next year/has to be better.

    1. It’s funny because even my teachers I would consider “kooks” had total control over their classroom. It didn’t matter if they had couches or bean bag chairs, or a row of desks – as long as they knew what they were doing and the kids had confidence in that – the class was great. Sorry to hear you got the bad end of the stick this year. It is one of the strange myths of schooling that private schools don’t have bad teachers because they can be fired. It’s just not that simple. It never is. Fingers crossed for next year!

  2. I had to blog about this because it’s very important for parents to know —

    I’ve watch my daughter fall farther and farther behind with a poor teacher who preferred to surf the internet than teach. (Even with me in the room!) In hind sight, I would have demanded to be moved to a different classroom. I didn’t and kept trying to have polite conversations with the principal about the lack of learning. It was a total waste of a year and ruined my daughter’s self confidence in math because she fell so far behind. Never again.

    My 2 cents. 🙂

    1. I totally feel for you and your daughter. One of my girls had a horrendous year like that and she still talks about it. It really scarred her. I know she will encounter not so great teachers throughout her school career, but a teacher who robs a child of self-confidence and makes them anxious to the point of panicking at the thought of going to school should not be allowed to teach. I don’t know how the new evaluation systems will play out but I really, really hope there is a place for parental input. In aggregate I think the parents’ opinion is just as valuable as peer assessment.

  3. Insightful post…

    Especially when your child ends up with a sub-par teacher. We are at the tail end of an extremely trying third semester with a replacement teacher.

    We have been extremely lucky til now with my daughter’s teachers. Blessed, in fact! Unfortunately it takes an untoward situation to really appreciate those gems of teachers.


    1. I think everyone is bound to get their share of bad or mediocre teachers. I was having this conversation the other day with someone that without the bad teachers where would all the teenage angst comedies come from? John Hughes wouldn’t have had a career! 🙂

  4. rebecca – loved reading this post – especially because I shared your love for those two specific teachers middle school teachers, and one other – a certain extremely strict history teacher in middle school – no question in my mind I majored in history because of him! I hope my boys kind fine equal inspiration among their teachers!

    1. I totally agree with you on the history teacher too! No doubt Sidney Fine’s class was way easier because my core American History education was forever imprinted in my brain. For a school that wasn’t so hot overall IS 88 had a few really exceptional teachers!

      1. Yes I also loved those two middle school teachers, and that history teacher! You are so right about IS 88. I recently read my daughter the Wallace Stevens poem Tea that we read in that class. How amazing that 25 years later I still remember specific things that we read and wrote.

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