Educating for Democracy: What Makes a "Great" Teacher?

In a recent study about the impact of kindergarten on students who have now reached maturity ("The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers," David Leonhart, New York Times), a rather astonishing conclusion was reached. Teachers make the most significant difference, especially kindergarten teachers, in determining future success in a student's life. Examining the lives of over 12,000 students from an experiment in some Tennessee schools in the 1980's known as "Project Star," in which students were randomly selected in kindergarten classes so they were of "fairly similar economic mixes," researchers from Harvard, Berkeley and Northwestern measured the group for such socio-economic elements as attaining college degrees, being less likely to divorce and, most important for the study, earning more money than their peers.

It is flattering to believe that the most significant element in determining these students' success or failure was having a "good kindergarten teacher" or a "bad kindergarten teacher." Almost lost in the report was that students in smaller classes performed better than in larger classes: 13-17 better than 22-25 and that "in classes with a somewhat higher average socio-economic status all the students tended to do a little better." Might it have been as likely that these two factors -- smaller class size and higher average socio-economic status of students -- could be as significant as the quality of the teacher? That, actually, these two factors contribute to the making of a "great teacher?"

I would love to believe that there are many teachers who are "great," not only in their tenth year of teaching but in their first and twenty-fifth. But I believe that there are factors that make a great teacher one semester or year or even for a decade and, at times, a bad teacher as well, at least for a while. The combination of willing learners that create a "critical mass" in the classroom that lends itself to active learning, the emotional state of a teacher who might be having serious personal problems that inevitably have an effect on her or his teaching, and the "chemistry" behind a successful class environment that can be as subjective as the difference between a "hit" and a "flop" in show business all contribute to the learning environment. The importance of "first impressions" between students and teachers is hard to measure, but it can have an impact on the atmosphere in a classroom for an entire semester. And the role of the principal -- not mentioned in the report -- in providing a supportive, helpful atmosphere and a solid sense of leadership cannot be underestimated as well.

What I do believe is that it's very rare to find a "natural teacher" who is a success from her first day to the last class twenty-five or thirty years later. It requires a number of years of "seasoning" in which many mistakes and many inspirational moments give us the repertoire of approaches that enable students who are willing learners to excel, but also those who are reluctant learners to arrive at a "tipping point" that can produce remarkable results. Bur to conclude that a "great teacher" is the most significant factor in determining the success or failure of a student twenty-five years later is, at least to me, ignoring the importance of many other circumstances, not a few of which are not "measurable." I would also be uneasy about coming to a conclusion that students who earn more money twenty-five years later are, in fact, better educated. Did these researchers measure this cohort to determine how many books they read, their hobbies, their interest in the arts, literature, science? Is it possible that these "successes" economically might have gotten very little out of their educational experience compared to some former students who were less "successful?"

A recent report by the Brookings Institution evaluating the Harlem Children's Zone found its successes in improving student learning questionable and concluded that:

"There is no evidence that the HCZ influences student achievement through neighborhood investments. There is considerable evidence that schools can have dramatic effects on the academic skills of disadvantaged children without their providing broader social services. Improving neighborhoods and communities is a desirable goal in its own right, but let's not confuse it with education reform."

The "great teachers" theory offers support to this reactionary conclusion: it is another panacea for the problems of offering quality education to an increasing proportion of young learners who live in impoverished circumstances without sufficiently recognizing the impact of economic and social conditions on learning environments.

But let's assume that the most important factor in the "Kindergarten" report is "great teaching." What makes a "great teacher?" Is it a teacher who is dropped into a teaching environment that she has not been properly prepared for by an education degree that doesn't effectively reflect the real conditions in many of the schools in which she might teach? Is it a teacher who is under pressure to "produce higher test scores" or lose the chance for tenure or an established career? Is it a teacher who has to deal with a large class which includes many students with learning and language problems and little support to address these problems? Or is it a teacher who is given leadership support from an educator-principal, not a bookkeeper, a reasonably sized class, has the autonomy to develop teaching strategies appropriate to the learning needs of her students, and has an adequate supply of materials to use as she chooses. Most importantly, is she a teacher who is judged on the basis of multiple measurements of teaching quality by highly trained and experienced teaching evaluators, as they have in England, who have no political agenda and do not use test scores to measure student achievement.

The factors that make a "great teacher" are as complex as the factors that make a great musician or artist or poet. Teaching is truly an art, not merely a skill. Like all genuine education: It can't really be taught unless students are motivated to learn. In my 45-year career teaching, I have been a teacher of future teachers and would not be able to predict with any certainty which of them would make a "great teacher." But in my years of schooling from pre-kindergarten to graduate school, I can honestly say that I had three "great teachers" out of the close to one hundred who taught me: Ms. Capo de Ferro, my sixth grade teacher; Rudolph Cooper, my twelfth grade English teacher; Dan Laurence, my dissertation director, and my intellectual mentor for thirty-five years until his death last year. They were inspiring, they were intellectually challenging, and they gave me a new world to discover. Some of the rest were good, a number mediocre, and a few really terrible. As to my kindergarten teachers, Ms. Bave and Mrs. O'Leary, I remember two not-so-sweet old ladies who fussed a bit with my "deportment" and both, born about the time of Lincoln's assassination -- they were both in their 80's -- are lost in the mist of the past. They might have made a difference to their students forty years earlier; for me, they were sometimes pretty "scary."