Distinguishing an exceptional or truly gifted teacher from all the others is relatively easy. We immediately know one when we see or experience one—but articulating the distinction is somewhat elusive business. Over the years Hollywood has supplemented, or even more likely, constructed the ways in which we conceive of teachers. Countless films have produced this ubiquitous, misty-eyed, self-deprecating freedom fighter—part teacher, part miracle worker—capable of shaking up the education system and surmounting the insurmountable.
But according to Steven Farr, author of Teaching as Leadership, there is nothing “mysterious” or “magical” about it. He is quick to dispel the Hollywood paradigm and argues that “It [exceptional teaching] is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance.”
Since 2001, Farr has overseen Teach For America, a nonprofit, two-year program that sends college graduates into low-income schools to teach. Over the last decade, he has been compiling data—observations, questionnaires, and interviews generated by the nonprofit—on half a million American children with a primary goal: demystifying the pedigree teacher and determining what differentiates that teacher from less effective ones.
This data yielded a specific set of patterns. Pedigree teachers, Farr found, set and maintain high expectations for their students; they plan purposefully and tirelessly. But perhaps most importantly, they habitually reevaluate their approach, which means that their methodology is always fluctuating and in the process “of becoming.” This is not to suggest that the teacher does not have a plan. To the contrary, highly-effective teachers rely on effective execution; they know, in Farr’s words, how to “squeeze extra learning time” out of each day and maintain a “hypersensitivity to wasted learning time.”
That said, what these teachers do not use is a pedagogical formula or a “teach to the top” philosophy. They make sure that students—all of them— comprehend the material. Farr explains that simply asking, “Does everyone understand?” is a classic misstep. For whatever reason, many students often cannot or will not be able to articulate their confusion. Superstar teachers use ongoing assessment and quick checks for understanding—short quizzes, for example, or having students share with peers—to ensure that students are with them all the way. This approach not only helps the teacher gauge student progress, but it encourages students to self-assess and take ownership of their education.
According to Farr, this approach helps teachers “build in their students the metacognitive skills necessary to recognize the extent of their own understanding. Strong teachers work to teach students to think critically about what they do …” And when this happens, teachers are able to put more confidence in questions like, “Does everyone understand?”
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