What Makes a Great Teacher?

For years, the secrets to great teaching have seemed more like alchemy than science, a mix of motivational mumbo jumbo and misty-eyed tales of inspiration and dedication. But for more than a decade, one organization has been tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and looking at why some teachers can move them three grade levels ahead in a year and others can’t. Now, as the Obama administration offers states more than $4 billion to identify and cultivate effective teachers, Teach for America is ready to release its data.

Steven Farr is a tall man with a deep, quiet voice. He is Teach for America’s in-house professor, so to speak. His job is to find and study excellent teachers, and train others to get similar results. He takes his work very seriously, mostly because he has seen what the status quo looks like up close.

Farr grew up in a family of teachers in central Texas. When he graduated from the University of Texas, in 1993, he had a philosophy degree and an acceptance letter to Yale Law School, neither of which felt quite right. So he deferred law school and joined a new, floundering outfit, Teach for America.

After a little more than a month of somewhat uneven training, Farr walked into Donna High School in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas—a place he’d never been. Many of the three dozen kids in his classroom were the children of migrant workers; they would disappear for weeks at a time as their families followed the harvests.

Talking to Farr about those two years feels a little like talking to a war veteran. You and he both know that you can never understand what it was like, and the clichés come marching in. “It was the hardest, proudest, all of that,” he says, his voice drifting away. Then: “I was not the teacher I want our teachers to be.”

Farr lived with three other Teach for America teachers, in a house that had been confiscated by U.S. Marshals in a drug raid. He taught English and English as a Second Language. Texas required that students pass a standardized test before they graduate, and as test day approached, Farr felt a mixture of anxiety and resentment.

About a month afterward, he got the news: 76 percent of his students had passed; 24 percent were told they didn’t yet have the skills to graduate. Even though many were only sophomores, some of them dropped out as a result. The principal congratulated him on his scores, but Farr cried into his pillow that night. “Some of those kids did not pass because I was not as effective as I needed to be.”

After his two years were up, Farr went to law school, as planned. He came back to Teach for America in 2001—this time in charge of training and support. By then, the organization’s founder, Wendy Kopp, had begun to notice something puzzling when she visited classrooms: many Teach for America teachers were doing good work. But a small number were getting phenomenal results—and it was not clear why.

Farr was tasked with finding out. Starting in 2002, Teach for America began using student test-score progress data to put teachers into one of three categories: those who move their students one and a half or more years ahead in one year; those who achieve one to one and a half years of growth; and those who yield less than one year of gains. In the beginning, reliable data was hard to come by, and many teachers could not be put into any category. Moreover, the data could never capture the entire story of a teacher’s impact, Farr acknowledges. But in desperately failing schools, where most kids lack basic skills, the only way to bushwhack a path out of the darkness is with a good, solid measuring stick.

As Teach for America began to identify exceptional teachers using this data, Farr began to watch them. He observed their classes, read their lesson plans, and talked to them about their teaching methods and beliefs. He and his colleagues surveyed Teach for America teachers at least four times a year to find out what they were doing and what kinds of training had helped them the most.

Right away, certain patterns emerged. First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

But when Farr took his findings to teachers, they wanted more. “They’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah. Give me the concrete actions. What does this mean for a lesson plan?’” So Farr and his colleagues made lists of specific teacher actions that fell under the high-level principles they had identified. For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding: Are the kids—all of the kids—following what you are saying? Asking “Does anyone have any questions?” does not work, and it’s a classic rookie mistake. Students are not always the best judges of their own learning. They might understand a line read aloud from a Shakespeare play, but have no idea what happened in the last act.

“Strong teachers insist that effective teaching is neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance,” Farr writes in Teaching as Leadership, a book coming out in February from Farr and his colleagues. The model the book lays out, Farr is careful to say, is not the only path to success. But he is convinced it can improve teaching—and already has. In 2007, 24 percent of Teach for America teachers moved their students one and a half or more years ahead, according to the organization’s internal reports. In 2009, that number was up to 44 percent. That data relies largely on school tests, which vary in quality from state to state. When tests aren’t available or sufficiently rigorous, Teach for America helps teachers find or design other reliable diagnostics.

So far, only one independent, random-assignment study of Teach for America’s effectiveness has been conducted. That report, published by Mathematica Policy Research in 2004, looked at the organization’s teachers and found that, in math, their students significantly outperformed those of their more experienced counterparts. (In reading, though, the teachers’ students did the same as other teachers’ students.) Another study is due out in 2012 or 2013.

Mr. Taylor, the fifth-grade math teacher in Washington, D.C., is not a member of Teach for America. He grew up attending D.C. public schools and then joined the profession the traditional way: he majored in education in college and then was certified. But Mr. Taylor has a lot in common with the teachers Farr has found to be most effective.

On a typical Monday, Mr. Taylor’s kids come to class and begin silently working on the Problem of the Day written on the blackboard. They sit in four clusters of desks. Each group has a team leader, who is selected by Mr. Taylor each month.

Mr. Taylor walks in and says good morning. “Good morning!” they answer in kid unison. He is wearing a scarf, a black-and-white pinstripe cardigan, and small, oval Dolce & Gabbana glasses, and he looks tired. He is taking classes on the weekends to get his master’s in education administration. He has a Bluetooth headset in one ear and an earring in the other.

After a few minutes, Mr. Taylor announces that it’s time for Mental Math. The kids put down their pencils and grab the orange index cards and markers on their desks. Mr. Taylor begins to walk around the class, reading problems aloud. “How many 5’s are in 45?” The kids have to do the math in their heads. All of them write their answers on their cards and thrust them up in the air. With a quick scan, Mr. Taylor can see if every child has written the right answer. Then he says, “What’s the answer?” And all the kids call out, “Nine!” When they get an answer right, they whisper-shout “Yes!” and pump their fists. If some kids get it wrong, they have not embarrassed themselves by individually raising their hand and announcing their mistake. But Mr. Taylor knows he needs to give them more attention—or, more likely, have their team leader work with them. Children, he has learned, speak to each other in a language they can better understand.

“Now I’m going to trick you,” Mr. Taylor says. “What’s 3 times 120?” The orange cards go down—and back up. “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” says one little girl, unable to contain herself. “‘Ooh’? Is that the answer?” Mr. Taylor says, silencing her.

Next, Mr. Taylor goes to the board to teach a new way to do long division. It’s a clever method that takes a little longer but is much easier than most other methods, and I’ve never seen it before. “You want to work smart, not hard,” he tells me later. “If you just show them the traditional method, not everyone understands.” He actually learned the method last year—from one of his students.

Mr. Taylor follows a very basic lesson plan often referred to by educators as “I do, we do, you do.” He does a problem on the board. Then the whole class does another one the same way. Then all the kids do a problem on their own. During the “we” portion of the lesson, Mr. Taylor calls on students to help solve the problem. But he does this using the “equity sticks”—a can of clothespins, each of which has a student’s name on it. That way, he ensures a random sample. The shy ones don’t get lost.

As the kids move into group work, there is a low buzz in the room. I try, but I can’t find a child who isn’t talking about math. One little boy leans across his desk to help another with a problem. “What do you add to 8 to get 16?” he says, and then he waits. “Eight,” the other boy says. “Then,” says the first, “you subtract that and what do you get?”

The activities come in brisk sequence, following a routine the kids know by heart, so no time is lost in transition. In Teaching as Leadership, Farr describes seeing such choreography in other high-performance classrooms. “We see routines so strong that they run virtually without any involvement from the teacher. In fact, for many highly effective teachers, the measure of a well-executed routine is that it continues in the teacher’s absence.”

On the front wall, Mr. Taylor has posted different hand signals—if you need to go to the bathroom, you raise a closed hand. To ask or answer a question, you raise an open hand. “This way, I have the information before I even call on you,” Mr. Taylor explains. There is even a signal for when you are having a terrible day and don’t feel up to participating: you just put your head down on your desk. I ask Mr. Taylor how often kids exploit that option. “I’ve never had anybody put their head down,” he says, matter-of-factly. “In three years?” I ask. “No.”

Next, Mr. Taylor announces it’s time for Multiplication Bingo. As Mr. Taylor reads off a problem (“20 divided by 5”), the kids scour their boards, chips in hand, looking for 4’s. One girl is literally shaking with excitement. Another has her hands clasped in a prayer position. I find myself wanting to play. You know you’re in a good classroom if you have to stop yourself from raising your hand.

Finally, after a dozen problems go by, a small voice from an even smaller boy pronounces, “Bingo!” Kids wail in despair as the tiny boy walks up to collect his prize (a pencil) from Mr. Taylor. “Dang!” one girl says. “Okay, relax,” Mr. Taylor says, smiling. “It’s just a game.” Before they leave, all the kids fill out an “exit slip,” which is usually in the form of a problem—one more chance for Mr. Taylor to see how they, and he, are doing.

When I talk to Mr. Taylor after class, I notice that he tends to redirect questions so that they reflect his own performance. When I ask him if his first year on the job was hard, he says, “I found that the kids were not hard. It was explaining the information to them that was hard. You paint this picture in your head about how you will teach this lesson, and you can teach the whole lesson and no one gets it.”

Like all the teachers I talked to in Washington, Mr. Taylor laments the lack of parental involvement. “On back-to-school night, if you have 28 or 30 kids in your class, you’re lucky to see six or seven parents,” he says. But when I ask him how that affects his teaching, he says, “Actually, it doesn’t. I make it my business to call the parents—and not just for bad things.” The first week of class, Mr. Taylor calls all his students’ parents and gives them his cell-phone number.

Other teachers I interviewed spent most of our time complaining. “With the testing and the responsibility and keeping up with the behavior reports and the data, it has gotten so much harder over the years,” said one fourth-grade teacher at Kimball, the same school where Mr. Taylor teaches. “It’s more work than it should be. They don’t give us the time to be creative.”

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Amanda Ripley is the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way (coming August 2013).

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