Good Teaching by Good People
by Daniel B. Coupland PH.D.
by Daniel B. Coupland PH.D.
Let’s face it: the best teachers are often idiosyncratic—if not downright quirky. And there’s a good chance that their peculiarities contribute in some way to their greatness, a fact that makes “great teaching” almost undefinable. As soon as we identify even a single feature of great teaching, we discover an outstanding educator who may not exhibit it. This is because teaching is an incredibly complex human act in which the best of the profession marshal their knowledge, skill, experience, personality, and character to educate their students.
Truisms such as “teaching is an incredibly complex human act” or “teaching is an art” or (even more nebulous) “good teaching: you know it when you see it” are often unhelpful to developing educators who have yet to become the classroom masters they long to be. New teachers (and those who train, mentor, and evaluate them) need specific, unambiguous statements that are concrete enough so that they can understand them and move toward them. So rather than trying to nail down the hazy features of great teaching, let’s focus on something much more definable and useful: good teaching.
Over the past two decades, I have taught, observed, and evaluated hundreds of future and practicing K-12 educators. When observing these teachers in classrooms, I often look for certain elements, indicators, or practices during the lesson that I know from history, research, and personal experience will more than likely lead to a successful teaching/ learning experience. Here are those features:
Good teachers demonstrate in their instruction a knowledge of and commitment to the mission of the school. Additionally, they exhibit the value of learning for its own sake and cultivate a sense of wonder and delight in their students and in themselves.
Good teachers manage their classrooms by precept and example. They dress, act, and sound like professionals, and they serve as model adults for what the students will one day become. Although good teachers have clearly stated rules for general classroom behavior, they manage the daily activities of the learning environment by means of classroom routines/procedures that they have presented, practiced, and reinforced. Good teachers arrange the classroom thoughtfully and purposefully so that the environment is consistent with the philosophy of the school and effective methods of instruction.
Good teachers lead classroom instruction. In their lessons, they demonstrate knowledge of their content and how best to teach it. They offer clear, engaging lessons that are informed, organized, and focused. Good teachers use all class time purposefully and effectively. They keep a healthy pace to their instruction—not too fast and not too slow, and they recognize and break up the lulls in lessons. Good teachers rely on time-tested instructional methods including thoughtful questions, orderly discussions, and engaging lectures. They use models, examples, illustrations, and stories to reinforce ideas, and they regularly check for student understanding. When asking questions, good teachers purposefully use a variety of question types—from more closed-ended questions (e.g., what, when, and where) to more open-ended questions (e.g., how and why), and they prime all students to answer. They give students appropriate time to think (“wait time”) before calling for an answer, and they provide (or they allow other students to provide) quality feedback to students’ answers. Good teachers rely heavily on whole-class instruction, and in cases when they use group work
THEY EXHIBIT THE VALUE OF LEARNING FOR ITS OWN SAKE AND CULTIVATE A SENSE OF WONDER AND DELIGHT IN THEIR STUDENTS AND IN THEMSELVES.
in class, good teachers keep the number of students per group low and the assignments as focused as possible. Good teachers are often mobile, engaging with students throughout the entire class period.
RESOURCES, ASSIGNMENTS, AND ASSESSMENTS
Good teachers use textbooks, technology, and other resources prudently to support their instruction and to enhance student learning without allowing these resources to undermine or replace their role as instructional leader. They assign purposeful work that effectively enhances students’ understanding. Good teachers use both formative and summative assessment effectively to inform instruction in the classroom and to communicate academic progress to both students and parents.
So how can we prepare people to teach well? First, attract good people to the profession—people who know about important things and have a passion and ability to share those things with others. Second, give these new educators a basic description of good teaching (like the one above) and help them to understand how they can do these things in their own classrooms. Third, give these new teachers support from experienced mentors who exhibit good pedagogical knowledge and skill in their own classrooms. Schedule times for the inexperienced educators to observe their mentors teach and vice-versa; then create opportunities for regular discussions about pedagogy between them. And finally, be patient. Anything worthwhile and noble takes time to develop, so don’t be surprised when new teachers struggle in the classroom.
Of course, we can hope for great teaching in every classroom, but it would be much wiser to get those who are newest to the profession to focus first on good teaching.
Daniel Coupland is the chairman of the education department and professor at Hillsdale College. He is the coauthor of Well-Ordered Language: The Curious Child’s Guide to Grammar, a curriculum that presents the study of language in a way that enhances children’s capacity to perceive the world in an orderly way. He is also an advisor to the Barney Charter School Initiative as well as the Institute for Classical Education.
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