By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

Qualities Of Good Teaching


During the past month, I have had the privilege of taking Brevard College’s teacher candidates to visit schools throughout Western North Carolina. My students and I witnessed some wonderful teaching and learning happening in our public schools. Here are some of the things we saw and heard in our classroom visits.

In one psychology class, on a topic as controversial as gender roles in the media, we witnessed a discussion where each of the 26 teenagers, the introverts as well as the extroverts, spoke. No one interrupted anyone; no one played with his or her cell phone; everyone quietly listened and reflected as their peers voiced their thoughts and opinions. You do not find this civility on most news shows today and it was made possible by a great teacher. A great teacher builds and nurtures a community of respect where diverse populations can dialogue, sharing perspectives on complicated ideas

We saw a history teacher ask students to analyze primary sources about the Boston Massacre to figure out the “truth” of what happened and the more important concepts of sourcing, contextualization, close reading and corroboration. A great teacher follows strong standards embedded with essential questions to teach engaging lessons; the emphasis is not on test-taking skills or memorization of facts for the test, but on conceptual ideas that deepen students’ understanding of complicated concepts. Do you know what really happened during the event that was considered a landmark on the road to the American Revolution?

We heard an English teacher asking questions similar to these: “Is this a signed article?” “Do you know the difference between .com and .edu when looking for unbiased sources?” “Who do you think is paying for this information?” “What is the evidence they use to support their opinion?” A great teacher asks a lot of questions and teaches information and media literacy to their students. I also suspect that a great teacher’s students will be voting when they turn 18 and might just help save the country from those citizens constantly listening to entertainment news or talk radio without asking these questions.

We stared in amazement at a teacher in the first five minutes of a class as she checked attendance, directed a student to the homework folder, wrote an essay question on the overhead, and excused a student to go to the bathroom in sign language, all while reciting, from memory, the poem of the day. A great teacher possesses “withitness,” the art of running a classroom while having eyes in the back of one’s head. Coined by researcher Jacob Kounin in 1970, the term emphasizes the importance of teachers being able to continuously scan the classroom to know at all times what is happening, no matter what else they are doing.

We saw a Google sheet pacing guide and a 3-inch class planner notebook. You have not witnessed great skills in design and graphing and time management until you have witnessed the alignment and bridges and crosswalks between standards and activities in a planning map document indecipherable to anyone besides another teacher. A great teacher knows how to design curriculum that not only teaches the required standards, all one million of them, from the required Course of Study, and makes the standards relevant and interesting to the lives of her students. A great teacher is always planning, often spending as much and even more time preparing for a class or unit than teaching it.

You cannot understand the beauty of adaptability and flexibility until you have seen a lesson plan altered by a snow day or the whim of a technological failure, or a fire drill, or the emotional needs of the class. A great teacher acclimates herself to changing roles, job responsibilities, materials, and schedules not on a yearly schedule, but a daily one, while always prioritizing her students and their learning needs.

We visited a math class where we witnessed group work and projects, and seats arranged in circles and heard phrases like, “Yes, you will get a late penalty if this is not turned in tomorrow,” “Yes, you need to work collaboratively to solve this problem,” “Susie, can you help Tommy understand how to multiply polynomials,” and “Yes, you have to show your work.” A great teacher teaches more than just content knowledge; she teaches character development and “soft skills,” an encompassing term referring to various behaviors that help people work and socialize well with each other.

Researchers estimate that a teacher makes more than 3,000 nontrivial decisions every day from deciding on what students to call upon, or how to frame questions, to how to respond to various behaviors. The late educator Madeline Hunter compared teaching to surgery, “where you think fast on your feet and do the best you can with the information you have. You must be very skilled, very knowledgeable, and exquisitely well trained, because neither the teacher nor the surgeon can say, ‘Everybody sit still until I figure out what in the heck we’re gonna do next.’”

Teaching is a complex act, not easily quantified or measured through analytics, but my students and I knew it when we saw and heard it last month, and we know that although it may appear effortless and seamless, it is infinitely difficult and painstakingly planned. You can believe teaching is the simplest thing in the world — until you try to do it.

(Dr. Burrows is director of Teacher Education at Brevard College.)


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