Steven Farr, Teach For America
February 2010 

With nearly two decades of data on more than 17,000 teachers, Teach For America has released its internal findings showing what distinguishes its most highly effective teachers from the rest. The book, Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, outlines six principles embodied by effective teachers and builds the evidence base for an issue that author Steven Farr says has been far too long shrugged off as an ineffable mystery – what makes a great teacher?

TFA teachers and alumni will surely recall large portions of the “Teaching as Leadership” (TAL) framework from heart (or at least older iterations of it). My first encounter with TAL occurred during afternoon-long sessions at a coffee shop in 2005, between college graduation and moving to the East Coast to begin my teaching stint in Camden, New Jersey. I had just two weeks to ingest the formulas for extraordinary teaching before heading to Summer Institute (TFA’s five-week boot camp).

For me, TAL was memorable (you’ll see what I mean if you flip through it for yourself) because of its sense of urgency about closing America’s vexing achievement gaps, and because its anecdotes inspired hope that hard-working young people could achieve the seemingly impossible with their students.

But the contents of TAL aren’t just motivators. For TFA teachers, the six principles are guidelines for how to measure classroom success, signposts for knowing whether you’re on track to replicating the extraordinary achievements of teachers who’ve gone before you. The framework’s principles are wrap-around and multi-purpose – not only do they inform TFA’s selection process, they serve as evaluation tools and guidance for TFA in developing its teachers from neophytes into educators capable of moving their students ahead by one, two, three, or more years of academic growth.

TFA has found that highly effective teachers do the following:

  1. Set big goals that are ambitious, specific, and measurable. I first learned this as BHAG – “big, hairy, audacious goal” – which doesn’t make sense until you see someone’s face after you proclaim that your kindergartners will read second-grade books by May. Then, “hairy” seems pretty accurate considering you haven’t taught them how to sit in their chairs yet. (In fact, one NYC principal’s expectation that teachers outline their goals for students recently instigated the United Federation of Teachers to file a grievance.)
  2. Invest students and their families. Teach For America doesn’t have a monopoly on this; excellent schools everywhere realize that family involvement is a key factor in helping kids achieve. 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 pocket) to motivate their students to learn. I came to understand the essence of this pillar when I watched footage of a teacher whose third graders were screaming and crying (literally) with excitement over which class had a higher homework completion rate.
  3. Plan purposefully. When you’re an amateur with a tough assignment, deliberate planning is one of the only ways to prevent the type of crashing and burning that haunts every new teacher. Everything – and I mean everything – must have purpose, which is why this principle is exemplified not just by airtight lesson planning but by classroom management strategies prescribing even how a student raises her hand to use the bathroom. Such deliberateness prevents misbehavior from erupting during transitions, down-time, etc. and ensures that students are spending every second of their time on task.
  4. Execute effectively. Effective teaching results from a great deal of preparation and practice. TFA realizes that stellar teachers are masters of communication, can think on their feet, and adjust mid-course when necessary. It also 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. Steven Farr points out that when observing TFA’s most highly 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. Top-notch teachers constantly seek improvement, are reflective about themselves, and take responsibility for lessons, systems, or strategies that aren’t working. In order to be effective in this realm, an obsession with all forms of data is pretty much a prerequisite. The cycle of tracking, observing, learning, and morphing is so central to TFA that I wouldn’t be surprised if interviewees earn points for referencing their love of self-help literature.
  6. Work relentlessly. Some principles inherent to highly effective teaching are harder to develop than others, and I think this area is one of them. Great TFA teachers have a relentless commitment to their students and feel urgent about closing America’s achievement gaps. But the fuel driving TFA teachers 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 I think even TFA has a difficult time quantifying.

Teach For America believes unequivocally in the power of quality teaching to transform educational opportunities for low-income and minority students who have been denied the excellent education they deserve. Through their organizational commitment to data collection, research, and constant self-improvement, TFA has refined these principles over time and has leveraged them to impact the lives of 3 million students. Five years ago when I first came across TAL, I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of these principles, or that only by living and breathing by them would I be able to succeed as a novice and live up to the difficult tasked placed in front of me.

I remain convinced by the power of Teaching as Leadership to recruit, evaluate, and develop extraordinary teachers, and am excited by a growing consensus that it is indeed possible to measure what makes a teacher excellent. Of course, the evidence around teacher quality is still partial at best, and the definition remains blurry (not everyone agrees that “effectiveness” should be the driving metric).

But in reading Teaching as Leadership, you begin to see at least a faint outline made possible by the successes of thousands of teachers in low-income communities – one with the potential to convince even the worst of skeptics that America’s achievement gaps are not inexorable. Policy makers, educators, and the rest of us must press forward in search of greater precision around defining, measuring, and building systems to attract and reward our highly effective teachers. For the 14 million children growing up in poverty in the US, our search for answers has never been more imperative. Buy the book here.

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