The 29 things great teachers do

You choose where you live around it. You spend your mornings and evenings and sometimes your weekends shuttling your kids to and from it. And in some cases, by the time your child turns 18, you’ve shelled out enough in tuition, field hockey uniforms, bake sale brownies, and holiday wrapping paper sales to fill your front lawn with a fleet of Lincoln Navigators. But you care about your child’s school because a good education pours the foundation for everything else.

But what actually makes a good educational experience is hard to nail down. Is it standardized test scores? Per-student spending? Dozens of extracurriculars to choose from?

Nay! It’s the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you meet your child’s teacher, says a new book by Kelly Middleton and Elizaeth Petitt. Sort of.

In Simply the Best, these two Kentucky superintendents hone in on the qualities common to teachers whom students remember as their favorites. And they all come down to the basic idea that kids learn better when they feel valued, when the lessons are hands-on and relevant, and when they’re encouraged to participate. Oh, and when their teachers bake them cookies.

The book’s press release begins: “New math, phonetics, DIBELS, open classrooms, and inclusion are all buzzwords used over the years in the field of education.” (All of those, I’m pretty sure, are real things except DIBELS, which sounds like a sub-department of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.) “The bottom line remains,” it continues, “that if the child is not excelling in school, academically and personally, our schools are failing.”

And too many of our schools our failing. While there are many problems — underfunded systems, outdated curriculums and crumbling infrastructure –the quality of teachers has become the focal point for school reform. In Chicago, at so-called “turnaround schools,” the entire staff is fired and many spots are filled by new teachers. In Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee supports revoking teacher tenure. Secretary of Education and former CPS head Arne Duncan has supported pay-for-performance models. And the popularity of programs like Teach for America rest on the idea that who is in front of the class is the first and most important predictor of success.

Middleton and Petitt have written an interesting book that, while it occasionally gets lost in academic buzzwords and tends to state the obvious, helps identify what you should be looking for when assessing your child’s teacher.

And so, from the mouths of babes,the 29 things kids interviewed say their best teachers did:

  • Know us personally/remember our names
  • Smile at us
  • Set rules for everyone (including themselves)
  • Show no favoritism
  • Tell us how we will use what we are learning in the real world.
  • Help us learn about our future and our role in making it better.
  • Give meaningful work (no word searches, worksheets, or busy work)
  • Admit it when they mess up or make mistakes
  • Tell us they believe in us

I was struck at how many of these items might appear on a list of the 29 things great parents do. (Hopefully remembering kids’ names isn’t one of them, though I’ve been confused with the family dog more than a few times). But things like setting consistent rules, applying real-world lessons instead of settling for “because I said so,” and truly enjoying, or at least pretending to enjoy, the job of parenting strike me as hallmarks of parents who raise grateful, competent and well-adjusted kids. Parents should believe in their kids and tell them so, help them apply their interests to the world around them, and they should admit when they goof up.

Food for thought all around. How does your child’s teacher stack up? What about your own favorite teacher from your school days?

Liz Hoffman is the web editor at Chicago Parent.

Contact Liz at lhoffman@chicagoparent.com

See more of Liz’s stories here.

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