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What Is Good Teaching?

What is good teaching? That’s a question that has been in the foreground of the education profession for decades, if not longer. What is it? What does it look like? What are the practices that skilled teachers embrace to achieve the elusive goal of “good teaching?” Despite all of the dialogue that has, and does, surround this issue, there is little in the way of consensus even within the profession, let alone among the citizens it is designed to serve.

The Atlantic has undertaken a brave and timely project to examine this question, along with a myriad of related and urgent topics. I commend this series of essays to anyone with a concern for the present condition of our public education system as well as the direction we need to head to assure that all American students receive The Education Kids Deserve. The series is titled “On Teaching.” In her September 16, 2020 article, contributor Kristina Rizga tackles the question head-on, even titling her piece “What Is Good Teaching?” It’s a good read.

Rizga bases her assessments on conversations with fifteen teachers across the country. They represent the practices and attitudes of rural Oklahoma to Mississippi, subarctic Alaska to suburban Arizona, California, Texas, Kentucky, and Michigan. These fifteen individuals are veterans of the profession, which she defines via this editor’s note: “In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to three years leading a classroom. The ‘On Teaching’ series focusses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.”

In attempting to shine an accurate light on the question, “What Is Good Teaching?”, she relies on the gained wisdom through experience of these veteran professionals. One place to begin in addressing this fragile topic is to illuminate what it is not. Her experts suggest:

  • “A good teacher doesn’t come from following a rigid list of the most popular evidence-based tools and strategies.”

  • “Being a good teacher often means hiding what you are doing behind closed doors, or actively resisting policies that demand “sorting” of children into “high-achieving” and “problem” students rather than working with each student as an individual. Isn’t that a sad commentary, that to be a really good teacher, you have to work under the table or be subversive?”

  • Another veteran professional stated: “When the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in 2002, the teachers at our school received letters from superintendents asking us to stop assigning presentations and research papers to English seniors—and to use that time instead to prepare students for tests. Once, an outside consultant arrived, armed with a large binder that included a curriculum and step-by-step instructions on how to teach it. The materials were neither culturally appropriate nor intellectually challenging enough for our students.”

  • Students also noted what didn’t work: teachers who focused on their students’ weaknesses (coming to class late, not turning in an assignment, filing a draft with grammatical errors) rather than on their efforts (coming to class despite personal challenges, working hard in the classroom, participating in discussions, developing original ideas in their messy drafts).

So, it’s safe to conclude, at least from the perspectives of this diverse group of experienced educators, that “good teaching” is not the product of top-down initiatives or imported “one-size-fits-all” commercial strategies. No, the answer rests in a perspective that is much more intimate, one that is specific and personal. Even though it may fly in the face of the “solution du jour,” it represents the truth.

“Being a good teacher comes from a teacher’s commitment to knowing and respecting students and their families.”

In a word, that comes down to “relationships.” Caring enough to understand the circumstances and the unique realties of each individual student.

  • “A teacher’s commitment to knowing and respecting students and their families.”

  • One of the veteran teachers reported that in 2000 she embarked on a research project examining best practices for teaching English, and gave students a survey asking “What makes a good English teacher?” Students said they learned best when teachers saw and heard them as individuals, helped them understand their strengths, and connected what they were learning with their future ambitions.

And the greatest truth from Rizga’s research is this. Quite simply, and profoundly, teachers must be afforded the opportunity to plan their instruction; not globally, but individually. “When teachers can plan intentionally, their lessons are more likely to be culturally specific, speaking to the realities of their students’ lives.”

So, what are the nuggets to be taken from the conversations between Kristina Rizga and her focus group? Quite simply, in addressing the question of “what is good teaching?”, we should rely on this.

  • “Teaching is an ever-changing practice that must respond to students’ needs in the moment.”

  • What’s the “best practice?” “What matters the most is building a personal connection with your students, and then it’s the daily commitment to bringing in well-considered, purposeful practices and working child by child.”

Individualized, not standardized.

Personalized, not prescriptive.

Innovative, not formalistic.

Good teaching is rooted in relationships, and the sincere desire to understand.

Teaching is diminished when we succumb to preconceptions, mandates or standardizations.

Good teaching is an enterprise of individual caring.

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