HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Finding and Creating Good Teachers: What Does the Research Tell Us?
As educators (and parents), we all know instinctively from our own experience what research confirms more scientifically: students learn better from good teachers than from poor ones. But what is it that makes for a good teacher? Common sense might tell us that good teachers know their subject and have a passion for what they teach. And it might tell us that good teachers are able to manage their classroom. But “common” sense is not always common or dependable. Some principals, for example, may praise a teacher because his or her classroom is orderly, while other principals may see the same classroom as overly regimented. And how do we know what teachers really know, and whether they know enough to teach to the highest level and inspire the most able students?
Teachers who graduated from a fast-track teacher preparation program are often just as well prepared as teachers who graduated from more traditional programs.
Whether day schools are hiring teachers of Judaica, Hebrew, or secular subjects, finding candidates who have proven track records is certainly a good place to start. But there are seldom enough proven teachers available. And it is difficult for school principals to be confident that newly minted, relatively untested teachers are going to work out, especially on the basis of resumes, educational credentials, and an interview or two. Thus, staffing an entire school with solid teachers is a daunting challenge, particularly given the fact the effectiveness of some veteran teachers may have waned because of complacency.
Fortunately, good research can help us eliminate some of the subjectivity involved in assessing teacher quality. Empirical research is intended to get us beyond the perceptions and biases of individuals, and provide answers that are more likely to be universally applicable. And other research can point to promising schoolwide strategies for developing a highly effective teaching staff.
Finding Good Teachers
In 2003, Michael Allen wrote a major report for the Education Commission of the States—a national organization that serves the information needs of state policymakers and education leaders throughout the U.S.—about the research on teacher preparation. The report posed the question, What does research tells us about the characteristics of promising new teachers? Although much of the research is inadequate to give us confident, let alone definitive, guidance, it does suggest some things school principals and other administrators might well consider in hiring new teachers. Some of the conclusions and the implied lessons seem fairly obvious, although one might be surprised at how often principals frequently ignore the obvious in making staffing decisions.
- Teachers need to have strong knowledge of their teaching subject. This is not an easy asset to assess, especially on the basis of a transcript or resume. A major in the subject isn’t necessarily required, and a minor may not be sufficient. And the fact that a person took a number of courses is no indication of how much or precisely what the individual learned from them.
Implication for administrators: Err on the side of caution. Don’t think a teacher with a thin academic background in a subject can do an adequate job teaching that subject unless you have independent confirmation that the teacher really knows his or her stuff in spite of having little formal preparation.
- Teachers need not only to be well grounded in their teaching subject but also to have a good grasp of how to present that subject effectively to students.
Implication for administrators: Knowledge of a subject is necessary but not sufficient, and it really would be a good idea to see how well a candidate can present a lesson in his or her teaching field. Work with a department chair or a trusted veteran teacher in a field to assess a prospective teacher’s content knowledge and pedagogical skill in their teaching field.
- Teachers need to have the ability to manage a classroom effectively, including the ability to assess students’ grasp of the material.
Implication for administrators: Think about what kind of classroom(s) the prospective teacher is going to face and what kinds of skills the teacher will need to be successful. If a prospective teacher has had some real-world experience in the classroom, he or she is likely to be better able to manage the class you’ll assign, even more so if he or she has taught students similar to those who make up your school.
- Teachers who graduated from a fast-track teacher preparation program (commonly called “alternate route” or “alternative certification” programs) are often just as well prepared and committed to teaching as teachers who graduated from more traditional programs.
Implication for administrators: You can’t assume that a prospective teacher who graduates from a program that looks quite thorough on paper is better prepared than one who graduates from a program that is less comprehensive. Many other factors enter in, including how selective the program is, how much field experience the program includes, and how well the prospective teacher did.
- In many cases, a new teacher with less confidence and skill than other teachers catches up after a year or two, especially if the struggling teacher is highly intelligent and has the support of a good induction and mentoring program.
Implication for administrators: You need to weigh both the short term and the long term in hiring a new teacher, but intelligence is a difficult asset to overvalue. Especially if you have good induction and mentoring available for your new teachers, differences in the quality of their preparation or experience are less important than they otherwise would be.
Creating Better Teachers
Research also tells us that whatever skills and knowledge new teachers bring to their initial teaching job, it is only with experience that they become truly accomplished. But what is it about that experience that contributes to teachers’ improvement? Is it simply repeated practice, or is it some sort of deliberate staff development? And if professional development is the key, what sort of professional development is effective?
Old school theory was to hire the best, require re-accreditation, and budget enough to send teachers to seminars and conferences to recharge their batteries and learn new techniques. What we now know is that this seldom works, and that teachers generally utilize very little of what they learn at these in-service opportunities even within months of returning to their schools.
Instead, we are coming to recognize the important role in teacher development played by ongoing peer-facilitated professional growth opportunities where both new and veteran teachers become their own learning community. In this model all learning takes place on site and a staff training expert (from outside or within the school) collaboratively builds the program and trains teachers on staff to be instructional coaches, or peer coaches. Experts are brought in to model pedagogy or skills, a staff training expert works with teachers to be peer leaders, and over time staff transforms to a professional community where collaboration is the rule, self-examination is seen as strength, and teachers are excited to improve and pass on their new skills and insights to their colleagues.
Daniel Bennett heads the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, which recently concluded a four-year pilot program in three area Jewish day schools with funding from the Rose Community Foundation in Denver. Under this Reflective Practices Day School Initiative, not only did teachers become better, but they felt better about their success with students. The project was complex, and it took time before teachers completely accepted its goals and the changes required for improvement. But once it took hold, Reflective Practices demonstrated that so long as administrators are committed to the path, teachers—and ultimately schools—become better.
See facing page for results of this initiative.
Effective school administrators need far more than knowledge of the research, of course, to make good hiring and staff-training decisions. They need good judgment, a solid understanding of the needs of their school and its students, and ideally a wealth of relevant experience they can draw upon. But the research and knowledge of its practical application in Jewish day school settings can serve as a starting point for those who have less experience at their disposal, and can provide reassurance to help dispel doubt and uncertainty about what course of action to follow in both finding and creating good teachers. ♦
The initial evaluation of Reflective Practices shows the following:
- All teachers took an active role in on-site staff professional development.
- Principals documented greater collaboration among teachers and heard increased dialogue by them about professional development.
- Teachers reported that better defined goals and expectations led to increased student satisfaction and improved student learning and behavior.
- Expectations that their teachers engage in professional development and providing the means and opportunities for them to do so created a culture of teachers as learners marked by
- increased dialogue among teachers
- more faculty driven initiatives for professional development
- improved quality of teaching
- increased investment of effort and finances for curriculum development
- improved professional satisfaction
- increased attention to curriculum scope and sequence
- as teachers began to interact more professionally with each other, they began to think of themselves as better teachers and better professionals; this led to:
- increased collaboration on curriculum and on addressing students’ behavioral, learning and/or social challenges
- better lesson planning and evaluation
- increased responsibility by teachers to address the needs of all students and to differentiate among learning styles
- decreased feeling of professional isolation
- Instructional coaches expanded their role as educational leaders by helping to set the agenda for staff professional development and by encouraging colleagues to engage in professional learning.
- Shared leadership empowered the coaches to acquire new skills and knowledge and made them more conscious of the need to develop increased internal capacity for sustaining a school-wide, comprehensive program of professional development.
- Teachers reported that they found themselves
- viewing themselves as adult learners
- more attentive to students’ needs as learners
- more focused on how students learn, rather than on what they are
- supposed to teach
- relying less on administrators as problem solvers
- A number of other resulting changes provided yet additional opportunities for teachers to thrive:
- changes in school structure, procedure, and budget for the purpose of teacher development
- additional time for professional development provided by principals during the school day and through late start and/or early release.
- Improvement by teachers led to the ultimate goal of student success. After the completion of the pilot stage, students reported
- that they felt better about themselves as learners
- that they had a more positive attitude toward school
- that they felt more valued as learners
- that the school was more responsive to their educational needs
- that they were more receptive and less threatened by teachers’ innovations and changes in teaching styles
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Teachers are the most precious resource of any school. The measure of a great school is its ability to recruit and retain great teachers who know their subject and craft, care deeply about all their students, and are passionately committed to their own development and the school as a community. Here, find guidance for finding, preparing and evaluating teachers, and keeping them happy and productive stakeholders.
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