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Friday, February 24, 2012

7 ways to recognise a good teacher

Today both Janet Lansbury and Teacher Tom have posted about how not to teach. Well, that's the message I took away from their posts, anyway! Have a look, and see if you agree with me.

Anyway, I thought perhaps I'd take the opposite tack and tell you about some things to look for in a good teacher. You should be able to use these guidelines whether you're looking for a coach or tutor, assessing whether your child needs to move to a different class, or choosing a preschool.

Be warned: at no point will I mention test scores. The reason for this? Test scores don't measure how far a child has come from their personal starting point. A good teacher value-adds to every child's original potential, and that can't be measured in a comparative-result test.

How I wish our governments would use this list, instead of the statistical claptrap they insist on relying on. Teacher Tom will tell you what's wrong with that approach.

So here we go:

1. A good teacher sees the child at once. Look for acknowledgement of and interaction with your child as soon as the teacher meets them for the first time.

This is really important, it's my number 1, because a good teacher always looks on children as worthy of respect and is genuinely interested in meeting your child.

A good teacher introduces him/herself to the child as well as to the parent, and includes the child in any conversation. The age of that child doesn't matter! Even a baby is not an inanimate object, and so a good carer will address the baby, with respect.

2. How does the teacher speak to your child? A good teacher uses adult language when addressing a child, with word choice appropriate to the child's age, and adjusts the level of language appropriately depending on the child's response.

A good teacher never patronises or talks down to a child, and realises quickly if the child's communication skills are not age-typical (in either direction)- then compensates. Your child will understand what a good teacher is saying to them, or if they don't, the teacher will get down on their level and keep trying until they succeed.

3. How does the teacher interact with your child? A good teacher asks open-ended questions, and listens to the responses with an open mind. A good teacher invites the child to initiate conversations with him, and really listens, and responds.

If you read the Janet Lansbury post, you'll see in my comment there that my blood pressure rose considerably when I read about the teacher who told a preschooler that a disc shape was called 'round', not 'circle'. That's dreadful teaching. It's not respectful, and it's not fair. That teacher had made up her mind what the answer was, and she wasn't listening to the children any more.

(That's the sort of teacher who, in high school, marks correct alternative answers wrong in the exam, because it wasn't what she had in her head when she set the question. Maddening. Unfair. Makes the child withdraw and stop trying. And I see red!!)

Teachers like that stifle creativity as well as skewing factual learning. Run a mile from teachers like that, as Janet did.

Speaking of fair,

4. A good teacher is fair.

Remember, my definition of 'fair' isn't 'giving everyone the same thing'. My definition of 'fair' is 'giving everyone what they need'. So if there's a dispute between two children, a good teacher will recognise that both children need her loving intervention, not just the perceived 'victim'. So she won't, for example, vilify anyone in her class. Not even the 'problem' children- or what you might see as the 'problem' children.

Listen to your child's feedback, because unfair behaviour is the first thing they'll complain about; you might need to speak to the teacher about your child's needs, or you might need to explain to your child that other children have different needs which the teacher is trying to meet. (Keep an open mind till you know the facts, and remember that teachers are bound to keep information about other students confidential.)

And by the way, speaking of confidentiality and professionalism- if you complain about another child's behaviour to the teacher and she vilifies that child in any way in response, you can bet your bottom dollar that your own child's private information isn't safe with her.

5. Does your child seem interested, or bored? A good teacher uses the children's interests to motivate them and keeps the learning relevant to the child's world as far as possible.

That means he finds out what the children are interested in, and teaches around that. (Yes, even a maths teacher can do that to some extent- or at the very least explain the relevance of the material.) I'm doing it myself at the moment with a reading student; amazing how much better he performs when I give him reading material he's interested in!

You see, good teachers know their students, and I don't just mean their name. Good teachers are holistic- they see the child as more than just a receptacle for their own certain type of knowledge.

A good teacher sees children as capable; a great teacher will set the bar slightly high, then adjust downwards only if necessary- because that ensures the interest of the children. Doing stuff they can already do over and over is boring. Children are surprising creatures sometimes. We could all learn something about children's capabilities from good teachers, because good teachers will provoke you to say "I never knew he could do that!"

And good teachers love red herrings thrown in by the kids, because it helps them to know their students- and it shows them what the children might be interested in learning about.

Control-freak authoritarians are rarely good teachers.

6. Good teachers set little or no homework.

(waits for the explosion from Tiger Mum Central!!)

Good teachers don't need to set homework, because they made the information stick by teaching it engagingly in the first place. They also don't set homework because they recognise that the children who really don't get it won't be motivated to do it because it'll be all wrong, and the children who already get it and don't need more practice will probably sit down and do the homework when they'd be better off playing outside, and half the homework that's set will be done by the parents anyway.

Then the teacher will have to sit down and mark work that didn't even need to be done by kids who've already mastered the skill, instead of spending that time working out a new and creative way to help those who don't understand.

Good teachers might set the odd assignment to see if a child can utilise their learning in a different context, but a great teacher will give the children lots of time to work on that project at school- because they recognise that free social play and outdoor play are both extremely important to children's development.

(NB: Music and sporting practice are the exceptions here. Something that demands increasing muscle memory and strength does need home practice nearly every day. But please don't let that be to the exclusion of free, social and outdoor play!)

7. For good teachers, teaching is a vocation, not a job- and so good teachers aren't defensive about their practice. Because they're professionals, they'll keep up to date with current thinking because they want to, and they'll be interested in new approaches. They'll welcome your input about your child (as long as you're respectful with their time). They'll sound enthusiastic about teaching when they talk to you. They'll be masters of critical reflection, and they'll listen respectfully if you feel a need to question something or complain.

They may not agree with you. But they'll speak to you respectfully, because they're professionals and they recognise that teaching and parenting have common goals- to help your child to blossom.

Now... how am I going to get this list out there to be used by the government? :D


  1. Nice list Annie and a good wake up call for all teachers! I did have one question from up top regarding speaking and addressing children. This topic came up with a teacher/colleague recently who I consider to be excellent at what she does. We are now entering the enrollment phase for Fall and as such we meet with many prospective families (and sometimes children) who we may or may not see again. Possibly due to some of the things you mentioned in your list! In any event, I was reminded of programs where when touring parents do not bring their children to see the school or meet their teacher until the first day of school. In fact this has been standard practice in all of the schools my own son has attended with the exception of homebased preschool. I was not particularly comforted by this, but such were the circumstances. My thought initially for an Early Childhood teacher/director/program is how does the teacher know who is coming to them, so as to make a connection and placement. The response subsequently was that the most important connection to be made is with the parent and that young children take their cues from the adults whom they are the closest and most reliant on. Clearly we have all seen this, a confident parent goes a long way towards helping a child transition smoothly and an overall good parent/teacher relationship. Then my friend recently pointed out that some children do not want to be engaged- feel uncomfortable and I too have seen this where crossing that line can feel aggressive, threatening, or something that is simply not appropriate. Especially if it is a tour or visit. In my own work, I usually take the cue from the child. If they are shy, I give them their space and let them side up to the comfort of mom or dad while we speak. If they appear comfortable and social, then I will seek to engage them, however, still somewhat modestly. It was pointed out as well that often parents are anxious when they visit about their children, their behavior, clingyness, or disturbance. In this way the parent's attention is focused on their own individual and personal relationship with their child, and unable to observe how the teacher works with his/her children/students in the class through the natural flow of their program. I appreciate what you've written, I'm not sure I'm convinced that a teacher who does not speak directly to the child at the first meeting, gets down on their level to engage them, etc., is necessarily NOT a good teacher. I may have misunderstood the context for this passage, however, I realize that parents can be vulnerable in seeking guidance. The verdict's not in and I appreciate you offering continued food for thought. Thank You!

  2. Great comment, Danielle- thank you.

    I appreciate what you're saying completely; perhaps I should have made it clearer that the point is that the teacher makes the effort to acknowledge the child. And as you say, if the child isn't ready to engage, then a good teacher gracefully pulls back till the child's comfortable. Certainly the child shouldn't feel threatened in any way by the teacher's approach, but the point is that the teacher doesn't simply ignore the child and focus on the parent, as I have often seen happen!

    Anxious parents- yes, that's a whole new topic. But the good teacher will continue to acknowledge the child at each meeting, even if their approach is ignored.

    Thanks for pointing this out!

  3. Really enjoyed this one, Aunt Annie.

  4. A great list of qualities, some of which I have to brush up on from time to time. I would like to add another if I may. A good teacher works with those around them as part of a team. We can achieve so much as individuals, but it's only by connecting and collaborating with others, whether it be thos we immediately work with, the extended team of colleagues or the wider teaching profession, that we can become greter than the sum of our parts to provide the best opportunities for children and their families. All too often I have seen good teachers act in isolation and therefore restrict their potential for growth by not opeing themselves up for what others have to offer.

    Ok, I'm done. Great post!

  5. Indeed! Great addition to the list. Everyone on the team has a different slant, and something slightly different to offer to the kids.

    So if parents see teachers sniping at or about each other... smell a rat, people!

    1. Annie! After all of that I scrolled up top and what you say is that a good teacher 'sees the child'. Whether spoken to or not the ability to sense who they are and what may begin to meet their needs then, could be a good place to start. Thank You! Good work when often much material is posted about what parents should do, including selecting a good teacher!

    2. Danielle? You sound like a good teacher! :D

  6. Annie, thank you for this fantastic list. Your mention of fairness ("Listen to your child's feedback, because unfair behaviour is the first thing they'll complain about") is so true and you reminded me of my eldest daughter's favorite teacher. My daughter was (and still is) friendly with the daughter of the headmaster of the school she attended from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Her 3rd grade teacher has always been her favorite of all, and one of the main reasons is that she was the only one who didn't treat the headmaster's daughter differently from the other children. My daughter is very aware that way...and her standards are high. I admire her(and just came back from visiting her in college!.)

  7. You know Janet, the first thing these government officials need to do when judging the merit of a teacher is to talk to the children. The children will tell you straight away who's a good teacher. If they just took surveys of the kids instead of trying to work it out with tests, they might get somewhere- and we'd soon get the dead wood out of the system. Children's judgment is pretty well unerring as far as the very good and the very bad goes- and they're not fooled by charm without competence, either.

  8. As I research ways to become a better teacher, I come across this article that boasts a good teacher sets little or no homework. Then mentions that this may not relate to music or sports groups. May I also suggest that this most certainly does not hold true for math class.
    I teach 8th grade mathematics and homework is essential. The students may understand the concept during the school day but they need the continuous practice to understand the concept and get it down pat. Especially when the math problem presents slight variation, the students needs to know and memorize the tools o adapt to this situation.
    Homework is essential for mathematics classes.
    PS if no homework is assigned, students are losing sense of responsibility ever so rapidly.

    1. Kathryn, thanks for your input. Believe it or not, I have taught Year 8 maths too, and very successfully. I set very little homework, yet the students improved their grades (I was teaching the bottom class) to the point where many were promoted.

      How did this happen? My emphasis was NOT on chalk-and-talk followed by a large amount of repetition of similar exercises; my emphasis was on using lots of interesting analogies (eg relating subtracting a negative to paying back a debt) and interaction/conversation, so that the children were engaged with the lesson and so that I had a relationship with each one of them.

      I do understand that a certain amount of repetition of maths strategies is needed to make the processes stick, but I tried to do this WITH the class, not leave it for homework. I did not sit at my desk marking work while the children practised exercises in class; I walked around engaging with them, asking them to describe their strategy in doing the question they were up to, praising them for what they did right and helping them with what they did wrong. I was not standing there with a big stick threatening them with failure, or overburdening them with after-school tasks which had little relevance to the rest of their life. IT WORKED.

      With the children so engaged, and laughing a lot during the lesson, I found it quite easy to demonstrate different types of examples on the board and then set work to be done during the class. I knew- KNEW- who would complete any homework and who would not, and it conformed exactly to what I have set out in this blog post. There was absolutely no point.

      Children need a balanced lifestyle. Teachers who set hours of homework, and maths teachers are the biggest offenders, are doing a disservice to children's health and wellbeing.

      Also I must take issue with your equating not doing homework to a lost sense of responsibility. Children learn responsibility for others through social connections, which they must make for themselves. They learn personal responsibility when they are allowed to discover cause and effect- when a parent or teacher allows the child to bear the full burden of the natural consequences of their actions. You cannot MAKE a child care.

  9. I know this is a really late comment--enjoying having time to read blogs during my summer break--but I especially loved what you said about the children "laughing a lot during the lesson." I am 100% convinced that we all--children and adults alike--learn best when we are either laughing or moving.

    Great post!

    1. Kerry, there's no such thing as a 'late comment' to me! What I write, I hope will endure longer than the usual 15 minutes of fame provided by the internet.

      Good point about movement and learning. I am less familiar with that, but thinking particularly of some of my very active indigenous children, I recognise the truth of it at once.

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