7 Differences Between Good And Great Teachers
by Grant Wiggins, Authentic Education
There are endless articles, blogs, essays on the difference between good and bad teachers. All the frameworks for teacher evaluation highlight the shades of difference. But to my eye there are far too few adequate analyses of the difference between good and great teachers.
I actually find that latter distinction more interesting, in a similar vein to the Jim Collins inquiry on businesses: how does one go from good to great? And like Collins, I think the difference is qualitative – The actions, behavior, and attitudes of great teachers differ considerably from those of good teachers; it’s not just a matter of degree. (That’s why I find almost all the well-known evaluation systems humdrum – they focus on mere goodness instead of being designed backward from greatness. That’s for another blog).
Let me propose a set of distinctions – admittedly a bit glib – that may have value for sharpening our sense of what greatness is in teaching:
- Merely good teachers think they are mostly in the business of teaching stuff and helping students so that it gets learned.
- Great teachers are in the talent-finding and talent-development business.
- Merely good teachers look mostly to the past: did they learn what I taught and did they do what I asked of them?
- Great teachers are aiming for the future: are these students better able to succeed on their own after me and without me?
- Good teachers cover a lot of ground while making the content as interesting as possible.
- Great teachers decide what not to teach to ensure lasting emphases and memories
- Good teachers are often threatened or bothered by smart alecks and skeptics.
- Great teachers delight in smart-alecks and skeptics who clearly have raw but undirected talent.
- Good teachers merely know us as students of the subject.
- Great teachers know us better than we know ourselves, especially in terms of intellectual character.
- Great teachers get more from us than we thought possible to give
- Good teachers have high expectations and passions, and think that the rest is up to us.
- Good teachers uphold standards and grade according to the scores students earned.
- Great teachers sometimes bend the rules and fudge the grades on behalf of raw student talent.
Here is a report from a student’s science teacher – from the elite British school of Eton, no less – who in a final report makes clear his stance as a “good” teacher:
Alas for this teacher, the student in question grew up to be a Nobel prize winner who cheekily displays this report on his web site and has it framed in his office.
Such stories are not amusing outliers. I have personally witnessed many such reports and attitudes as a student, teacher, parent, and colleague.
I have often in workshops told the story of a former student of mine, Chris, who was mostly successful but viewed as a big pain-in-the-you-know-what by many of his teachers. I saw Chris up close not only as his teacher but as the advisor to the school paper where he was editor. He once got us all in trouble by writing an expose of the work and living conditions of the school’s cafeteria and building and grounds workers – published on parents’ day, no less. The Dean confiscated all the copies. I admired him and fought on his behalf a few times.
Chris grew up to be Chris Hedges, Pulitzer-winning report for the New York Times.
Many talented people in the arts are famously hard to deal with; John Lennon and James Brown are familiar examples. And speaking of talent recognition, Lennon and the Beatles notoriously FAILED their audition at Decca Records in 1962. (I have a high-quality bootleg of the tape: you can hear a song on my band’s site here.) Jaime Escalante, one of the most well-known great teachers, was extremely difficult to work with (as reported in the wonderful Jay Mathews account of Escalante’s work at Garfield HS). Had it not been for his Principal and some other knowing supervisors, Escalante would likely have never accomplished what he did. I saw a teacher in Portland HS in Maine years ago who was the greatest teacher I ever saw – Leon Berkowitz. He refused to join with his colleagues on school reform projects and was notoriously cranky.
There are numerous such stories about Albert Einstein, as readers no doubt know. (Alas, many of them are untrue, such as the story that he did poorly all through school.) But Einstein clearly bristled under the kind of good teachers I am describing (as recounted in Isaacson’s biography of Einstein):
He would later be able to pull off his contrariness with a grace that was generally endearing, once he was accepted as a genius. But it did not play so well when he was merely a sassy student at the MunichGymnasium. “He was very uncomfortable in school,” according to his sister. “He found the style of teaching – rote drills, impatience with questioning – to be repugnant…the systematic training in the worship of authority was particularly unpleasant.”
Skepticism and a resistance to received wisdom became a hallmark of his life. As he proclaimed in a letter to a fatherly friend in 1901, “a foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”
I once led a workshop on critical thinking and asked teachers to fill out a T-chart with critical on one side and uncritical on the other. Curiously, many teachers proposed such indicators as attentive, disciplined, and follows directions and procedures carefully as indicative of critical thinkers. When I suggested that those sounded to me like indicators of compliance a teacher noted that, indeed, when she had proposed “skeptical” at her table they had rejected it as the hallmark of uncritical thinkers!
This is all very personal for me, as you might guess. I was a smart aleck; I was not a successful student for many years. It wasn’t until one high school teacher and one college teacher saw some talent in me to nourish that I turned the corner and began to believe in my worth as a thinker. I still seethe with dislike for a teacher who never once praised me for anything I did all year (though he was a very good teacher and highly respected by others). I almost dropped out of both college and grad school in the face of teachers who didn’t know me, didn’t care to know me, and only cared to give me low grades to teach me a lesson about hard work and scholarship. When I decided to be a teacher – in part, motivated to right the wrongs inflicted on me – I vowed to find and reward learners who showed potential, whether as thinkers, soccer players, teachers, trainers or unit writers. And I can honestly say that of all I have accomplished as an educator (and as a parent) I am most proud of what I have accomplished as a talent scout.
So, ask yourself, honestly: do your behaviors and attitudes suggest that you are sufficiently in the scouting and talent-development business? Or do they suggest that you are too much in the content-mastery business? (Notice I am not saying that it is impossible to be both; I am talking about the good teacher as being too focused on one and not the other).
Yes, yes, I know the pressures on you; I know the schedules, the syllabi, the standards, the evaluation system, the pressures of 700-page textbooks. Please, consider, however: do you think greatness comes without challenge and sacrifice, in teaching or anything else? More pointedly: do you really believe in the long run that it is mastery of your content that determines a student’s long-term fate? Can’t you think of teachers whose greatness lay in their ability to see and promote – sometimes at the expense of time, rules or policies – what others ignored in you? How, then, do you wish to be remembered as a teacher: merely good?
This article first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; Grant can be found on twitter here;
There are no bad teachers, only lax teachers. People can define a good teacher in many different ways, such as his teaching styles, personality, communication skills, and educations. Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Liu are professional math teachers in High school, but they teach in different education systems. Mrs. Jones is a high school math teacher who teaches based on an American education systems and Mrs. Liu is a math high school teacher who teaches based on a Chinese education systems. They differ in three main ways, which are teaching styles, methodology, and passions of teaching. In contrast between Mrs. Jones’ and Mrs. Liu’s teaching results, students in Mrs. Liu’s class have better grades and better understanding of math than Mrs. Jones’ class.
Good teaching styles based on teachers’ beliefs about what constitutes good teaching, personal preferences, and abilities. Mrs. Jones is a typical math teacher who teaches in . Her belief is students should study hard by themselves, a teacher role as an advisor who is helping the students in the class. She has never pushed her students, even though there are some students who have really bad grade. She likes to spend most of her class time to do in-class worksheet and sometimes chats to her students while teaching, rather than explain specific math skills solving problems. Mrs. Jones does not do enough preparation works before she teaches, therefore, she can not explain few math skills solutions clearly to class. Therefore, there are many students do not well-understanding math problems, and have good grades. In contrast, Mrs. Liu who is teaching high school math based on Chinese education systems. Mrs. Liu’s teaching styles are stricter than Mr. Jones’. Mrs. Liu believes a teacher is important to students, because being a teacher should take care of her students, especially their grades; and a good teacher should guide her students how to get better grades and better levels in their studies. Mrs. Liu much cares about her students compare to Mrs. Jones does. She provides free tutoring to her students who have bad grades and gives extra helps to her honors students who want to achieve better level of math. She does a lot of preparation before she teaches, such as extra specific math problems and handouts. Also, she explains all the specific math problems clearly in class. According to Mrs. Liu’s teaching styles, students in her class well-understanding math and have strongly abilities to solving math problems.
Teaching methodology is important to teachers. Mrs. Jones likes to use PowerPoint while teaching. PowerPoint shows math problems solutions steps clearly with colorful math images and figures to students, some good PowerPoint assignment also include recorded voices which explain every math steps while click next step. Students can learn math problems from the PowerPoint directly and clearly understand every math problem solving steps. However, the negative effects of using PowerPoint are students sometimes loss mind or do not pay too much attentions to it, also, PowerPoint roles as a teacher to the students, but Mrs. Jones have not do much positive things for her jobs. How can students in improve their grades and math skills by learning from PowerPoint? On the other hand, Mrs. Liu likes to using black board rather than using new technology methods assistance while teaching. She likes to write the math problems and solutions on board and explain reasons to her class, sometimes she asks students do some math problems on board, and does the corrections and explanations with students’ work on board. Students will pay more attention to watch her writing of math solutions steps, and listen carefully about the explanations. These are the reasons students in Mrs. Liu’s class are better understanding math problems.
Teaching with passion it is not only about motivating students to learn, but also teaching students how to learn, and doing so in a manner that is relevant, meaningful, and memorable. It is about caring for your craft, having a passion for it, and conveying that passion to everyone, most importantly to students. Mrs. Jones as a math teacher who is teaching in American, she has insurants and social benefits guarantees under cover by government. Therefore, she has not paid enough passion to her students; such as chat with students in class, she does not teach keeps students motivated and emotionally positive, such as does not guide her students how to achieve better levels of math, instead , she just provide simple tasks to her students, and try to make them be happy with their grades. In a contrast to Mrs. Liu who has a lot of passions with teaching. She is pride of being a teacher, and respected by others. She motivated her students with her hard working, which is not only in-class preparations and teaching, but also has free tutoring to students who have bad grade and honor students who want to achieve better math levels outside the class. A teacher like Mrs. Jones has without a passionate commitment. She cannot last in a leadership role because the needs often surpass the resources available to meet them.
No pain, no gain. Mrs. Jones is not a bad teacher. However, compare and contrast to Mrs. Liu who is a typical math teacher in , Mrs. Liu is a good example of being a good teacher because of her hard work and great passion in teach.