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The real qualities of teacher excellence

Posted: 2011-03-17

This is from March 17, 2011 Washington Post Answer Sheet, where Valerie Strauss continues to support education precepts that matter.

This post was written by Joanne Yatvin, a longtime public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

Most of us, I think, can name the qualities that go into being a good cook, a good friend, or a good worker. But could we quantify those qualities? Would each quality have the same weight? And what if our two best friends had different qualities that when tallied up showed a wide discrepancy?

All of this must seem hopelessly complicated and, very likely, inane. Who would want to measure one friend against another? But that is exactly the inanity going on in states and school districts bent on measuring the quality of teachers so some can be awarded merit pay and others can be fired.

To make matters worse, the people setting up the measurement formulas don't seem to know what the qualities of a good teacher are. Most of them can name only the ability to generate high student test scores, while the rest go blank after adding the ability to manage classroom behavior.

Although I can't resolve the numbers dilemma, I can, from my own long experience as a teacher and a principal, name a set of qualities that I believe mark excellence in a teacher, and I want to do that here. To me the most important one is the ability to inspire students to want to learn more about what has been taught in class, whether that is math, writing, science, or civility.

Why do I choose that quality instead of the ability to increase student knowledge and skills?

From reflecting on my own education and questioning friends about theirs, I have confirmed what I had long suspected: we don't use or even remember much of what was taught and tested in school. But we do hang on to those few things that pushed us toward our careers, hobbies, or habits in the first place. I turned out to be an English teacher and a writer who remembers many of the books, plays, and poems I read in school. Even now, I can quote a few Shakespearian soliloquies and recite the prelude to The Canterbury Tales--in Middle English!

But don't ask me who the president of the United States was during the French and Indian War or even what that war was about. Don't ask me to find the Congo on an unmarked map of Africa. Even the advanced math and biology I studied at college have faded from my memory completely.

To help you get a fuller picture of my concept of teaching excellence, here are some other teacher qualities I think are important.

A good teacher:

  • Is aware, as far as possible, of each students’ academic strengths and weaknesses

  • Plans lessons that cover the range of students’ instructional needs and connect to their


  • Adjusts lessons while teaching in response to students’ questions and actions

  • Demonstrates respect and trust for students that they, in turn, give back to her/him and

    their classmates

  • Establishes a system of small group and independent learning that allows students to

    experience the roles of leader, follower, partner, and innovator

  • Discusses behavior or work problems with the offenders privately, out of respect for their dignity.

  • Makes an effort to include an encouraging comment or two when critiquing student work

  • Begins each day with enthusiasm and optimism, putting aside past disappointments

  • Although I feel my list is still incomplete, it is long enough to convey my concept of good teaching and make clear why it can't be measured or even perceived by evaluators who don’t know a teacher's work firsthand.

    The most reliable evaluator is a good principal who visits classrooms regularly and gathers additional information informally from conversations with teachers, students, and parents. As the result of this kind of evaluation process, a good principal is able to move the best teachers into positions of greater responsibility and honor and to help struggling teachers improve or decide to leave the profession they are not suited for.

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