What Makes a Great Teacher (and How Did We Find So Many)?

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools.” (Jim Collins, 2001, Good to Great).

First, “great” does not mean perfect. However, greatness is only achieved by aspiring for perfection. Greatness can only be achieved--in people, teaching, art, sports, and more--by constantly reflecting and evaluating performance.

I have been fortunate to work in many good schools with good programs, mostly good teachers, a reasonable curriculum, and dedicated administrators. With the good, we also tolerated the less-than-good. We established our place in the market and enjoyed more enrollments than we could admit. This made us feel like we were reaching our goals and offering a solid education. We felt good, and we enjoyed the relaxed feeling that came with that.

Soon we felt content in our success, and stopped responding to concerns. Our teachers felt it was unnecessary to collaborate and keep abreast of best practices. We expanded offerings, but rarely deleted any from the program. We grew wasteful, and perhaps a bit arrogant. In other words, we gave in to good and stopped trying to be great.

Over the past six months, I received nearly 400 teacher applications. I read every resume and interviewed more than 75 of the candidates. My board chair asked me, “Where are they coming from, and why so many?” My answer was simple: they are coming from everywhere, and they are seeking greatness. 

I'm currently reading a few books on the science of teaching and research regarding the “highly qualified teacher.” If you consider some of the studies in which parents and students were polled regarding the “teacher who has helped me the most,” the list of attributes looks like this: kind, patient, fair, interested in students' lives beyond the classroom, mastery of subject matter, and a sense of humor.

When you contrast this list of attributes with one provided by teachers, it is strikingly similar. Teachers also added: they respected students and did not embarrass them, had high expectations, came to class prepared, and brought passion to their practice (US Department of Education, 1997). In other words, we agree that the best teachers are kind and empathetic human beings with a passion for children, who are experts in their pedagogy.

Robert Sternberg

An educational psychologist whom I hold in high regard, Robert Sternberg (Cornell), identifies three domains in which expert teachers differ from non-experts (1995).

  1. Knowledge: Experts bring knowledge to bear more effectively.
  2. Efficiency: Experts do more in less time to advance student learning.
  3. Insight: Experts more frequently find novel and appropriate solutions.

If you are a teacher who spends most of your time preparing, teaching, marking, meeting with parents, attending meetings, and writing reports, when do you find time to research and become an expert? That has always been a challenge of the profession. 

At TASIS, we have a solution. We build professional development into the four weeks preceding the start of school. No school does this much for this long. But that is still not enough: we also found a way to build it into our day by ensuring teachers have common free periods to collaborate and discuss curriculum and pedagogy. Additionally, we build it into every fortnight, providing teachers with guided professional development for three hours every other Friday afternoon. 

Every teacher I hired expressed both a desire for, and past experience with, professional learning communities–a name given to intentional, scheduled, collaborative peer-to-peer learning. 

Why do they want this? Because they know they are good, and they aspire to be great. They understand that they each have something to learn from their talented colleagues. They realize that being an expert requires a commitment to continuous improvement. Incidentally, when interviewed, they also asked me about professional development opportunities at TASIS before they inquired about salary. 

In a recent “Coffee with Keith” webinar, I mentioned that our teachers are experienced…but not too experienced. By that, I meant that they have enough experience to know that the teacher in the classroom makes the biggest difference to student achievement (J. Hattie, 2008). It was not a reference to their age (although they are mostly “mid-career” professionals), but to their spirit and commitment to students and to professional growth. They are not satisfied with good; they wish to be great (and because of that, most of them already are).

At the end of the day, we know that beautiful facilities, ethical management, and student-centered practice make for good schools. But it is the teachers who really make the difference in the lives of young people. We have the best. And they're aiming to be even better.

Recent Posts from Keith Chicquen

Reading Buddies

While I agree that life after school, and even outside of school, can be occasionally dissimilar from what occurs inside the safe and coddled walls of academia, I would argue that most of the skills acquired there are transferable.

Read More about Real. Life.