Friday, November 12, 2010

What makes a great teacher?

Each Sunday in the business section of the Washington Post there is a section called "On Leadership," where a question is posed and several "leaders" respond...for whatever reason, I ritually glance at this. This past Sunday, the question asked was something to the effect of "What should President Obama's next move be after the backlash of the midterm elections?" As I perused the varied responses, I was struck by the parallels between great teachers and great leaders. Great teachers are inherently great leaders.

Colonel Charles D. Allen, (U.S. Army, Ret.) Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College:

"When plans and strategies appear to falter, the simplest questions are often the ones that are the most overlooked: 'What were we trying to accomplish, and why?"

Such reflection is a daily if not hourly practice in the classroom. Teachers put a lot of effort into their planning and preparation, but when a given lesson or activity falls apart, they reflexively ask themselves, "Whoa, why did that happen? What was the point of this? What was I trying to get at? What did I hope the students would learn?" and, quickly, "So, if that went wrong, how might I accomplish the same objective differently? What else might I do? What's another approach?" (and they eagerly seek advice from colleagues and others on these new techniques). Discernment is a natural part of the job. Humility is a natural part of the job!

Susan Peters, vice president of executive development and the chief learning officer at GE:

"Good leaders seek new answers - and for those answers they might not like, they figure out both why they don't like them and why they are being said."

Teachers must juggle demands and expectations of students, parents, principals/directors, colleagues, and even state or local standards. They get accustomed to hearing other requirements, other goals - and, with a strong sense of self and purpose, they find ways to incorporate these new demands in a manner which reflects their personal values and style. Great teachers know what they bring to the table, they know what they want, they are confident enough to listen to others, let in new ideas, and stick to what is important. I think these teachers are the very best "negotiators" - bridging differences, flexible with a strong core.

Michael Useem, Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania provided an anecdote about a fire crew that

"...gathered every evening to study the day's decision and decide on the next day's action...."

Four questions were asked:

"What had been planned for the day?
What actually happened during the day?
Why did that happen?
What should be done tomorrow?"

These leaders..."recurrently refashioned their strategy," - much like great teachers do, to meet the changing and evolving needs of their students and administrators. Teachers and schools go through periods when there is a lot of turbulence - changes in administration, budget shortfalls, perhaps a local crisis or emergency, or simply a new but difficult class. Great teachers respond to these more trying times much like this fire crew, taking a daily pulse and resetting daily goals. They stay focused and determined, working within the limits of the situation and achieving as much as possible.

Great teachers have the unique talent of being everywhere at once - being attentive to all the varying needs in a room and aware of how individual students learn best. Interestingly, when teachers do have successes (in a preschool classroom, such exciting moments as catching a child "using words" rather than lashing out physically at a classmate, or seeing a child persevere - try, and try again - at a new activity), these successes are never the teacher's personal bragging moment. Great teachers celebrate the student, giving praise and recognition for their new mastery, truly thrilled at their students' achievement. (And then they consider how they might build on this learning, revising their plans yet again!)

Why aren't more politicians former teachers?

1 comment:

  1. Great teachers know the perils of working in isolation (for themselves and their students.) Great teachers are inspired by and welcome collaboration with their community, and view them as an asset.
    I'm so glad to have you, a great teacher, in my community. Thanks!