Can You Tell a Great Teacher When You See One?

DuckBy Bill Henk – How about it?  Do you know a great teacher when you see one?  Well, I would.

That statement could engender a range of different reactions.  One response might be, “Big deal, you’re the dean of a college of education; you ought to be able to tell a great teacher when you see one.”  Another might be “Thinking you could actually do that sounds arrogant.”  Still another could be “Really, how exactly would you go about making that determination?”  And finally, “No, you can’t.”

Let me start with the following premise in making a semblance of a case:  I can certainly tell a lousy teacher when I see one.  There’s a rather vast set of principles about teaching swirling around in my head that I believe would enable me to make that call.  Teachers might be slightly subpar, overtly weak, or downright awful on any one or more of them, with a vast number of combinations amounting to fatally flawed instruction.  I would argue that these same principles, some admittedly book-learned, but with many more rooted in years of observing pre-service and in-service teachers in action, would also allow me to spot a great teacher when I see one. Oh, and let me add that being a longtime teacher myself, I fully and painfully recognize nearly every aspect of my own instruction that falls short of the mark as last week’s post illustrated quite well.

gavelIn writing this week’s post, though, two widely disparate chunks of prior knowledge came into play for me.  One is any variation on the popular expression, “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, then…”  Oddly enough, the other drives from a Supreme Court ruling on what constitutes obscenity.  In effect, the judge stated that the litmus test for pornography was knowing it when he saw it.

I realize that some would justifiably argue you can’t decide on good teaching by merely observing it, rather you’ve got to measure it.  That could take the form of instrumentation a professional evaluator would use as a framework for rating and recording information about a lesson s/he was observing.  I’ve used lots of these tools over the years, and they can definitely be helpful.  But sometimes when you look across all of the final ratings, they don’t add up to your general perceptions about the quality of the teaching.  Even with this caveat, I’m sure that many of these same criteria are up in my head contributing to the aforementioned swirling.

The other measurement society seems squarely fixated upon is a formal assessment of student learning.  The thinking goes like this:  If students haven’t learned well, the teacher hasn’t taught well.  On the surface, this assertion appears plenty fair enough, and to some extent, I buy it.  At the same time, I can provide a host of qualifications( like shortcomings in the administration and interpretation of standardized tests, student effort, and the context for learning) that call this assumption into question.  But I’ll save that stuff for another post.

Instead let me close by telling you what motivated me to write this post about knowing a great teacher when I see one.  Why?  Because I just did.

The short version is that my daughter started instruction in a new pursuit and her first session occurred last weekend.  For one hour, I watched the teacher, a complete stranger, work with her, and marveled at what I saw.  In that time, it became abundantly clear that he was deeply knowledgeable about the content of his craft and loved working with kids.  His attention was undivided.  He was gentle and kind, but directive.  He explained complex concepts in crystal terms that a child of her age could readily grasp.  He demonstrated technique.  He encouraged her, praised her, inspired her, and helped her work gradually through corrections.  The pace was just right.  He smiled throughout.  So did she.  His questions to her were purposeful. His patience was unmistakable.  And trust me, I could on.

In the whole, the Gestalt if you will, I had the privilege of watching a truly outstanding teacher in action.  And by the way, he has no idea whatsoever what I do for a living or that I’m writing about him.  The bottom line is that I left the session supremely confident that my daughter would learn a ton under his tutelage.  I didn’t need to measure anything.  No evaluation forms, thank you very much.  No tests.  All I needed to note that the lights of learning turned on in my daughter’s head.  The gleam in her eyes told the whole story.

At least this time around, I knew a great teacher when I saw one.

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