What Makes a Teacher Great?

Throughout my years in education, whether as a teacher or a school or district administrator, I have worked hard to focus the time, talent, and energy of all the adults involved in the lives of children on the most important aspect of their educational careers: teaching and learning.

I was reminded of any amazing example of teaching and learning when serving as a superintendent in a district in the northeastern part of the United States.

Sometimes we make things more difficult than they need to be. 

If you pay attention to the majority of the conversations in our country pertaining to improving education for students of all ages, you hear discussions about standards, accountability, test scores, budgets, core curriculum, and so on. All of these can be important; however, what is at the REAL CORE of improving education is the teacher who labors with the students in the classroom.

Great teachers know their students, adapt their teaching to their students, and make learning relevant and provide rigor for growth. This applies to teachers of students of ALL ages.

I have had the pleasure of working with many great teachers over the years. One of my favorite examples of great teaching and learning took place in a middle school. It was an interdisciplinary lesson between the art teacher and the English teacher. The theme was autobiography. The students wrote a paper about themselves and then, in art class, painted a self-portrait.

Below is the writing of one particular student. 

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The portrait was painted by that same student. The writing and the painting are sufficient. They may not appear to be amazing pieces of work. 

This story gets better.

How does your opinion change when I tell you that the student who painted her own portrait was blind? Yes, she made her own self-portrait but never saw it.

This is when the story goes to the next level…when great teaching kicks in. 

The teacher wanted to make sure that every student in her class was able to benefit from this lesson. Since she knew this particular student was blind, she asked the family for a photo. She then used an opaque projector to project the photo of the girl on to a canvas. Then using bottled glue, she traced outlines of the girl’s key features onto the canvas and let them dry. The student could then feel with her fingers those dried outlines and use them as a guide to complete her portrait, which she did.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Suddenly, the painting above is seen in a new light. While it was fine to begin with, it now, becomes a treasured piece of work.

I love telling this story because it is an excellent example of what great teaching and learning should be all about. The teacher knew her student, she adapted her lesson to provide her student with an opportunity for success, and she she made it relevant and she made it rigorous.

That is what great teaching and learning is all about.

Great teachers make it happen. Daily.

Whether we are teachers, administrators, parents or community members, focusing our energy on creating these types of teaching and learning opportunities through creating and supporting great teachers, will provide tremendous results. This focus should begin in our preschools, be carried through K-12 and then continued in our commitment to become lifelong learners.

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