Bird Droppings October 19, 2022
What is that piece you cannot teach teachers?
“Studies suggest that instructional and management processes are key to effectiveness, but many interview and survey responses about effective teaching emphasize the teacher’s affective characteristics, or social and emotional behaviors, more than pedagogical practice.” James H. Stronge, Qualities of Effective Teachers
I have been a student in classes with and have heard over the years of many great teachers. If I were to characterize those individuals, it would be that they could communicate and relate to their students. An affective, emotional, and social interaction brought relevance to their teachings. I first gained a serious enjoyment of literature from a professor at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, who stood up on a desk and began reciting Shakespeare in his overalls. He had studied Shakespeare in Great Britain and acted in Shakespearean theatre while there. I was enthralled and received an A in a Literature class for the first time in four or five years of college. After his tenure at Mercer, this professor worked with impoverished farmers in rural Georgia, which was his true passion.
“Why does everyone seem to have a story about how one special teacher got through to them and reshaped their life forever? Could it be that teaching is just about the most important job in the world? And could it be that in the end, the challenge of fixing America’s schools comes down to putting great teachers into classrooms and giving them the tools they need to do what they do best?” Karl Weber, editor, Waiting for Superman
I am sitting here a bit later than usual, as my schedule is mixed up with being retired, returning to work part-time, procrastinating, and getting up a bit later than usual. I knew my wife would be going to work, so no one was around to wake me up. I went outside into the fifty-degree chilly morning to check on the sky. There were stars, and silence was nearly deafening in the chill. I could imagine early people on this spot hundreds, even thousands of years ago looking up and seeing what I was seeing and imagining a hunter, a stag, a warrior, and dragons all emblazoned across the sky. But my experience does have some implications for my topic today as to the inherent ingredient in a great teacher.
“If we can’t identify the best teachers by comparing their credentials, we face an obvious and crucial question: How do we define a good teacher.” Karl Weber, editor, Waiting for Superman
It has been nearly ten years since I finished my Specialist degree at Piedmont College. When we would sit in our cohort and on that first day, we were introduced to a thirty or so page document that at that time was labeled the STAR. This was to be the basis for our degree program. It was a rubric to determine whether you were proficient, excellent, distinguished, and so forth as a teacher. The rubric was loosely based on work done by educational consultant Charlotte Danielson who now heads up the Danielson Group based in Princeton, New Jersey. I have read articles arguing the merits of Danielson and Stronge, but I see good points in their work. I have an issue with some of the bastardization school reformers have done with their words.
“An effective system of teacher evaluation accomplishes two things: it ensures quality teaching, and it promotes professional learning. The quality of teaching is the single most important determinant of student learning; a school district’s system of teacher evaluation is the method by which it ensures that teaching is of high quality. Therefore, the system developed for teacher evaluation must have certain characteristics: it must be rigorous, valid, reliable, and defensible, and must be grounded in a research-based and accepted definition of good teaching.” Charlotte Danielson, Danielson Group
“When teachers engage in self-assessment, reflection on practice, and professional conversation, they become more thoughtful and analytic about their work and are in a position to improve their teaching. Evaluators can contribute to teachers’ professional learning through the use of in-depth reflective questions. By shifting the focus of evaluation from “inspection” to “collaborative reflection,” educators can ensure the maximum benefit from the evaluation activities.” Charlotte Danielson, Danielson Group
The primary goal of the Specialist program was for each of us to leave Piedmont as Distinguished Teachers. Somewhere I have a medal on a blue ribbon showing that I am a distinguished teacher. A catch to this is that being a great or distinguished teacher does not stop the day it is anointed on you. This is literally who you are, not a degree or piece of paper. But what makes a great teacher different, and what gives us these great teachers? According to the Danielson framework, there are some specifics.
From the Danielson Group website:
Domain 1: Planning and Preparation. The components in Domain 1 outline how a
teacher organizes the content of what students are expected to learn—in other
words, how the teacher designs instruction. These include demonstrate knowledge
of content and pedagogy, demonstrating knowledge of the students, selecting
instructional goals, demonstrating knowledge of resources, designing coherent
instruction, and assessing student learning
Domain 2: The classroom Environment. The components in Domain 2 consist of
the interactions that occur in a classroom that are non-instructional. These consist
of creating an environment of respect and rapport among the students and with
the teacher, establishing a culture for learning, managing classroom procedures,
managing student behavior and organizing the physical space.
Domain 3: Instruction. The components in Domain 3 are what constitute the core
of teaching – the engagement of students in learning contests. These include
communicating clearly and accurately, using questioning and discussion techniques,
engaging students in learning, providing feedback to students, and demonstrating
flexibility and responsiveness.
Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities. The components in Domain 4 represent
the wide range of a teacher’s responsibilities outside the classroom. These include
reflecting on teaching, maintaining accurate records, communicating with families,
contributing to the school and district, growing, and developing professionally, and
showing professionalism. Teachers who demonstrate these competencies are
highly valued by their colleagues and administrators, as well as being true
From Charlotte Danielson, “Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching,” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1996, pp.3-4.
So often, we need to confine our ideas to lists too easy to understand, bits and pieces to check off what we have done or will do. Danielson’s four domains are significantly more than most twenty-minute walk through that are the standard in Georgia. But still, some pieces cannot be pinned down so easily. James Stronge, in his book, Qualities of Effective Teachers, has a few that stand out.
“Effective teachers care about their students and demonstrate they care in such a way that their students are aware of it.”
“Effective teachers practice focused and sympathetic listening to show students they care not only about what happens in the classroom but about students’ lives in general. These teachers initiate two-way communications that exude trust, tact, honesty, humility, and care.”
“Effective, caring teachers know students both informally and formally. They use every opportunity at school and in the community to keep the lines of communication open.”
It might sound a bit silly, but I am bothered when a teacher says they cannot live in the community they teach in. How do you ever know your students if you only see them and experience what they experience eight hours a day? So often, it is hard for teachers to break through the shell of teacher-student barriers that are presented and held in place by tradition and, frequently, school policy. Teaching is not just standing in front of a group of students and lecturing for two hours. Generally, most are asleep within the first ten minutes. Relationships need to be developed and cultivated that can bridge gaps. Email parents and communicate with students and parents to let them know you are concerned. I only seriously remember one very bad professor in my undergraduate and graduate years. He would come in, put the textbook on his podium and then read it to us. When the bell would ring, he would fold his book closed and leave—his office, when open was rather cold. One girl, I recall, went to him for some help and came in, sat down, and he stared at her for twenty minutes and never said a word.
“Education must ensure that not only the material but the inward life of the individual be developed. Education should address not the isolated intellect, as the advocates of standards suggest it ought, but the hopes and dreams of the self of which intellect – the complex reflective self – is merely a part.” Allan Block, Ethics and Curriculum
Perhaps it is remembering that worst-case scenario of bygone years and multiplying it over and over in our heads to help us conceive of and develop the way things should be. I think I came to my idea of what makes a great teacher by comparing the worst and best and seeing the vast difference in learning. I did not need research and data to see kids were reading who used to be illiterate. I did not need a checklist to watch people come away from a great teacher with the conversation still going and carrying it to lunch in the commons at Mercer or over dinner at Piedmont or Georgia Southern.
“Passionate teachers organize and focus their passionate interests by getting to the heart of their subject and sharing with their students some of what lays there – the beauty and power that drew them to this field in the first place and that has deepened over time as they learned and experienced more. They are not after a narrow or elitist perspective, but rather a depth of engagement that serves as a base for branching out to other interests and disciplines.” Robert Fried, The Passionate Teacher
It is so easy to throw out the word passion and try and point to ourselves and say we are passionate teachers. But you can quickly see the difference between the also run and the passionate in life. As I wander today, I have been a fan of Savannah College of Arts Literature Professor Mary Aswell Doll’s thoughts. I have used them numerous times as references in papers on curriculum and education. This illustration of an electric current running through us and Fried’s passion are components of a great teacher.
“Curriculum is also … a coursing, as in electric current. The work of the curriculum theorist should tap this intense current within, that which courses through our inner person, that which electrifies or gives life to the persons energy source.” Mary Aswell Doll
You have got a soul. I have often heard that remark about someone, and one of the experts on the soul is Thomas Moore, who has written numerous bestsellers about this often-ambiguous subject.
“Soul is not a thing, but a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance. I do not use the word here as an object of religious belief or something to do with immortality. When we say someone has soul, we know what we mean.” Thomas Moore
Soul cannot be taught; it cannot be bought, and it cannot be traded for. Moore uses some words here, going beyond Stronge’s qualities of a great teacher. Depth value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance are also pieces of who a great teacher is. A great teacher who has a soul might be my next point. Over the numerous years of teaching, I have heard teachers say they have been called to teach. I wandered back into education. Finding it was where I was meant to be. Parker Palmer offers to teachers that there is sacredness in our undertaking.
“The Community of truth, the grace of things, the transcendent subject, and the “secret” that “sits in the middle and knows – these images emerge, for me, from my experience of reality as sacred and of the sacred as real. Others may arrive at similar understandings from different starting points. But I believe that knowing, teaching, and learning are grounded in sacred soil and that renewing my vocation as a teacher requires cultivating a sense of the sacred.” Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach
Maybe I should have stopped a few hours back, but being in my sanctuary upstairs and quiet save for Brewer and Shipley for a couple of hours, I get a bit carried away. I want to stop with the thought that no door can remain closed. We as teachers need to be about self-improvement, becoming students, and teachers learning and reflecting so that we can always become better at our undertaking. We are critical links in our societal endeavors and must hold up our end.
“I used to think that any door could be opened. Some stood freely open; some could be opened easily; some were harder to penetrate. Sometimes you had to knock, sometimes bang, sometimes charge; but always the door could be opened.” Susan Thomas Anthony, Walk with Spirit
I started this many hours ago, and here I am, ending an unfinished work. Hopefully, over the next few days, I can address this idea of what makes for a great teacher but until that time, please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and your hearts and always give thanks namaste.
My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,
(We are all related)