What Is Good Teaching, Anyway?

Earlier this year my principal informed me that our state’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Stephen Pruitt, would be making a visit to my school as part of our district’s showcase. The kicker? Since Dr. Pruitt had a pretty big role in crafting the newest science standards, he was coming to my science classroom to watch me teach.

I was honored, of course, but I wanted it to be perfect. I got right to work making the perfect lesson plan for the day. I came up with an awesome experiment to show my kids, crafted the perfect assessment, and even scripted a couple one-liners to throw when the perfect time came. And when I told my principal about my plans for the day, his response was classic.

“Sure. But what are the kids going to be doing during all of this?”

I realized that all my lesson really required of them was to just sit there and listen in compliance. I was more worried about my performance than my students’ learning. That’s not what good teaching is.

I ditched the act and went back to the drawing board. It needed to be more about the students. So instead, I redesigned the lesson so that they would be generating some questions in small groups, completing a hands-on lab together with some guidance from yours truly, and then reflecting on their own individual learning. Not bad, if I say so myself.

With that said, teaching is a flat-out tough job. It’s a science, it’s an art, and more than anything, it’s a calling. Nobody goes into teaching thinking that it will be easy. It takes a whole lot of time and effort to be good at teaching, let alone great.

And that’s the thing. What is good teaching, anyway, and how do we know?

Take a moment to revisit your own school days. We all have our own ideas on what makes certain teachers engaging, effective, or inspiring, and if we were to make a list, I bet we’d see some overlap. Evidence tends to show some commonalities between these sorts of teachers who are highly-skilled at their craft.

For example, we know that teachers who focus on building positive relationships with their students tend to have better test scores than those who don’t make relationships a priority. As the insightful, late educator Rita Pierson famously put it, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” And of course, we know that not all students have the same ability, interests, or motivation, so it’s good for teachers to mix and match the strategies that they use in the classroom to help students learn. Different strokes for different folks, you know.

Teaching, being the messy, intricate art that it is, demands all of this and then a little more. And of course, all of these things are very broad - the way teachers build relationships or differentiate their teaching is different for every kid, because every kid is different.

That really is the key when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of good teaching. When I’m presenting new material, I try my best to get in my students’ corner, to figure out what clicks and help them build connections with the knowledge they already have. When a student asks if they can write a rap out of the new vocabulary they’ve just learned, the answer will always be yes. And once I realize that a class is getting bored from listening to me drone on and on about the laws of motion, I’m down for moving out the tables and building some roller coasters, too.

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t always get it right, but keeping students’ needs, interests, and abilities in mind is always a great foundation. That’s where good teaching begins.


Photo by Ryan Stanton, CC-Licensed.

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