Teaching as leadership

Though viewpoints on how to reform American public education are numerous and discordant, they tend to converge on one key premise: teachers matter. A lot.

Unfortunately, the consensus stops there. What characteristics do excellent teachers share? How do we measure these traits? What precisely do they do in the classroom that makes such a difference? Who knows? Maybe Teach For America does. In its new book, Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, authored by TFA’s vice president for knowledge development and public engagement Steven Farr, TFA has captured two decades worth of findings on 17,000 teachers to answer this simple question: What distinguishes an all-star teacher from the rest?

We learn that six traits characterize highly-effective teachers:

  1. Set big goals that are ambitious, specific, and measurable. This is also known within the TFA community as BHAG (“big, hairy, audacious goals”). Hairy is right--one NYC principal’s request that teachers outline their goals for students recently prompted the United Federation of Teachers to file a grievance.
  2. Invest in students and their families. Teach For America doesn’t have a monopoly on this; however, TFA may be unique in the extent to which its teachers will do nearly anything (dye their hair, shave their heads, pay for field trips out of their pockets) to motivate their pupils to learn.
  3. Plan purposefully. When you’re an amateur with a tough assignment, deliberate planning is one of the only ways to prevent the crashing and burning that haunts every new teacher. Such deliberateness prevents misbehavior from erupting during transitions and ensures that students are spending every second of their time on task.
  4. Execute effectively. TFA realizes that execution requires a dose of humility to recognize when a lesson is failing, to not take things personally, and to be so committed to the students that you can recognize the slightest wrinkle of confusion on a child’s face during a lesson, or a subtle act of disinvestment, and make changes accordingly.
  5. Continuously increase effectiveness. Farr points out that when observing TFA’s most effective teachers, it’s common to hear apologies from them that the class is in the midst of dramatically changing its management system, restructuring guided reading groups, etc. In other words, the only thing these teachers are tied to is never being tied to anything.
  6. Work relentlessly. Some traits of highly effective teaching are harder to develop than others. The fuel driving TFA-ers to work long hours, to face failure daily, to not only write high expectations on a classroom poster but to truly believe that children performing years behind grade level can leave their class achieving at high levels, comes from an internal locus that even TFA has a difficult time quantifying.

Why does any of this matter?

For starters, lessons from TFA appear to be inspiring President Obama’s and Secretary Duncan’s focus on “effectiveness” (versus No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on “highly-qualified” teachers). The idea is written into Race to the Top, and stands behind the four turnaround strategies of School Improvement Grants, especially the “turnaround” option, which focuses on major staffing changes in schools. Instead of evaluating teachers by what they did (e.g. certification or college courses), the administration wants to evaluate them on what they do (using student achievement metrics).

Still, when it comes to understanding the “squishier” traits of excellent teachers (such as grit and perseverance) and figuring out how to recruit and develop talent, there is a dearth of solid research. TFA’s work helps fill that void and others are jumping on the bandwagon too. Bill and Melinda Gates are pouring big bucks into the Measures of Effective Teaching project, an initiative that observes and surveys 3,700 teachers in six cities through 2011. It hopes to inform teacher evaluation through videotaping teachers, amongst other things, to capture, analyze, and learn from effective and not-so-effective teaching.

With a nearly twenty-year-old organizational commitment to data collection, research, and measuring value-added student growth, it’s fair to say that Teach For America is ahead of the game. Its findings add urgency to our pursuit of better evidence on excellent teachers, and inspire hope that a new consensus--one that doesn’t just stop at the vague admission that teachers matter--may well be within reach.

O’Leary, a policy analyst in Fordham’s Columbus, Ohio office, is a Teach For America Camden, NJ 2005 corps alumna.

More By Author