NPR logo 5 Great Teachers On What Makes A Great Teacher

50 Great Teachers

5 Great Teachers On What Makes A Great Teacher

When we began our 50 Great Teachers series, we set out to find great teachers and tell their stories. But we'll also be exploring over the coming year questions about what it means for a teacher to be great, and how he or she gets that way.

Ken Bain
Ken Bain
Ken Bain
Ken Bain
Troy Cockrum
Troy Cockrum
Troy Cockrum
Troy Cockrum
ERD
Eleanor R. Duckworth
ERD
Eleanor R. Duckworth
Renee Moore
Renee Moore
Renee Moore
Renee Moore
Jose Vilson
Jose Vilson
Jose Vilson
Jose Vilson

To get us started, we gathered an expert round table of educators who've also done a lot of thinking about teaching. Combined, these teachers are drawing on over 150 years of classroom experience:

  • Ken Bain is president of the Best Teachers Institute and author of What the Best College Teachers Do. He taught U.S. history on the college level for nearly 50 years — at the University of Texas, Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, New York University and elsewhere.
  • Troy Cockrum is director of innovative teaching for a K-8 school in Indianapolis. He hosts a podcast on the flipped classroom, and is the winner of a 2013-2014 Jacobs Educator Award for using technology to support innovative learning.
  • Eleanor Duckworth is a research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former elementary school teacher with an approach to teaching and research grounded in her study with psychologist Jean Piaget.
  • Renee Moore is a high school and community college English teacher, a National Board Certified teacher, a member of the board of directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and co-chair of its certification council. She also blogs for the Center for Teaching Quality.
  • Jose Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in New York City. He's a blogger and the author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education.

What qualities make a great teacher?

Renee Moore: The Hebrew word for teach has, among its meanings: to aim or shoot like an arrow, to point like a finger, to flow like water. The word reminds me of what parents do when we teach our child to ride a bike. The first time, we may ride with her or turn the pedals. Next time, we steer while she pedals. Finally, the moment comes when we balance her, aim her down the sidewalk, push her off and let go. Great teachers do that: They start or move the minds of their students along a path, prepare them for the journey and propel them into the future. And they do it consistently and passionately.

Ken Bain: ... I think we have to avoid the temptation to define everything in terms of what the teacher does to the student. Sometimes, as the title of a wonderful book put it, we teach best with our mouth shut.

I think about the way my youngest grandson is learning to ride a bicycle. It actually isn't the way Renee describes. Rather, his parents bought him a balance bike when he was barely 3 years old, and simply gave it to him. He then figured out how to balance himself on it entirely on his own. ... Sometimes, great teaching happens when we simply provide the resources and challenges and get out of the way.

Eleanor Duckworth: Getting people to think about what they think, and asking them questions about it, is the best way I know how to teach.

How do you know that you're having an impact?

Jose Vilson: The kids tell me, whether I want to hear it at the time or not.

Moore: I've taught my entire career in the rural Mississippi Delta, in small schools in small towns. As we used to say at Bread Loaf [the writing school of Middlebury College in Vermont, where Moore earned a master's degree in literature], I "inhabit the consequences" of my work. After 25 years, I'm surrounded by my former students, their families, and I'm now working with some of their children. I've had so many come or write back to tell me the impact I had on their lives. Among my most precious things are letters, handmade plaques and signs, and other gifts from grateful students. One wrote me from jail just to say, "Mrs. Moore, it's not your fault ... "

What kind of training and experience makes a great teacher?

Bain: I know I'm going to get pushback on this, but I think one of the major problems we face in cultivating great teachers is that we don't pay enough attention, especially in K-12, to the learning of the teacher. We should help them develop the dynamic powers of their minds and should continue to do so throughout their lives.

Second, we should help them develop an understanding of some of the major ideas coming out of the research and theoretical literature on what it means to learn, how the human mind works, and all of the personal and social forces that can influence learning. This is a dynamic field with lots of important research and ideas emerging almost constantly, and the training and experience of a great teacher has to include the opportunity to explore, understand and apply the ideas and information that is emerging.

Finally, great teaching includes the ability to give good feedback and to make assessments.

Vilson: It really depends on the environment around the teacher. ... With more experienced staff, it's important to get beyond the humdrum PDs [professional development opportunities] and get into something truly transformative, which is hard to find. That's why so many of us have to seek out PD opportunities both on and offline on our own time, past the meetings and opportunities provided by our school.

Moore: There is so much in teaching that would be best learned through apprenticeship, rather than the current system of leaving most new teachers to trial-and-error their way through. The teachers who become great or master teachers seek out the help and PD they need, as Jose mentions, but I agree with the work of Deborah Ball and others that we know enough about teaching that we can, and should, be much more systematic in sharing that collective wisdom with our newest members.

Also, Ken is correct about the importance of being able to assess student learning and give timely, appropriate feedback. The current overemphasis on test preparation and other misuses of standardized testing have taken much of this critical professional skill out of the classroom and away from teachers.

How has the definition of great teaching changed over time? How do you expect it to change in the future?

Vilson: The definition hasn't changed much over time, but the stereotype of it certainly has. The idea of raising test scores, being young and bringing a new set of ideas is different from the elder statesmen and women that comprised most of my ideas of great teaching growing up. Great teaching seems to reflect whatever the mode of education reform we're in at the time.

Bain: I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree here. I think there has been an enormous change in the way we define great teaching. In the old days, we often defined it in terms of performance on the part of the teacher. I'm afraid those old definitions still persist in the minds of some people. We had certain notions about great performances in the classroom, and we looked for those performances. In the emerging definition of great teaching that I've been suggesting here, some of us are now thinking of it in terms of learning and the facilitation of learning.

Moore: And I disagree with Ken. Great teachers (and the students and parents they serve) have always defined great teaching in terms of the long-term effects on their students. ... Your response suggests that the impetus for deeper learning on the part of teachers has come from the top (e.g., higher ed researchers) down to classroom teachers, when in fact, the greatest movement has been among teachers ourselves.

Bain: I'm really not suggesting a top-down model at all. I'm just recognizing that the research on human learning over the last half-century in particular has had an enormous influence on how we define teaching and how we understand what it takes to cultivate someone else's learning. Some important aspects of that research have been done by classroom teachers on all levels, so I'm not seeing much room for a "Us" and "Them" or top-to-bottom way of understanding this.

Who should not be a teacher?

Moore: Anyone who cannot listen or learn from others, including his or her students.

Vilson: Anyone who can't take critique and isn't willing to center their visions on the students.

Troy Cockrum: Someone who is not passionate for why they are in education. Students are not widgets. You can go to a job every day producing or designing widgets and do a good job at it even if you aren't passionate for what you do. Students deserve more. Students should be treated and respected as individuals, and only a passionate educator can do that.

Who, in your life, has embodied great teaching?

Duckworth: I danced ballet for six years, but I quit when I was 15 because I thought it wasn't a serious way to spend one's life. I was a very serious young woman. When I was 58, I finally got the courage to try again. Margie Gillis [a modern dancer and choreographer] was a great teacher of mine.

My first workshop with her was a weeklong class that had people ranging in age from 16 to 72 and in experience from total beginner to New York professionals. There were 35 people in the class, and it was a peak experience for everybody. She gave us exercises — such as, cross the floor as delicately as you possibly can — which we all did at whatever level we could, and we did them side by side. It was really extraordinary teaching.

Moore: I've been blessed to have had several great teachers in my life, starting with my father, who first taught me to love learning itself. Among my schoolteachers, the great ones included: Mrs. Bailey, a tall, elegant black woman who was the principal of our elementary school. She was one of the first educators I encountered who genuinely believed every child could learn, and would inspire us to attempt things we thought impossible. Another was Dixie Goswami, the director of the writing program at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English, where I earned my M.A. Dixie not only taught us how to write, but also the tremendous transformative power of literacy for us and our students. Well into her 80s and still teaching, Dixie continues to inspire me (and push me) to make a difference, not just a living.

Vilson: If we just focus on my time as a teacher, the best ones I know include Mrs. Ruff, a sixth-grade teacher whose classroom management was based on civil rights and empowerment. [Vilson also named Moore and suggested her for this round table].

How important is it to share some of the background and experience of your students?

Moore: Having some common experiences or understanding of my students' backgrounds was always helpful to me in my work with high school students because I taught in 100 percent African-American schools. The black students needed to see that it is possible to master the use of standard English without turning into a white person. But when I began teaching at the college level, I realized it was also important for the white students to have a highly accomplished African-American English teacher, because so many of them needed that model to counteract what they had been taught and told all their segregated lives.

What in your personal experience or biography helped make you a better teacher?

Cockrum: I come from a media production background. While that express experience may not have made me a better teacher, the need in the field to be innovative, creative and technologically advanced has given me the needed skills to bring those to education.

Vilson: Everything, but especially growing up in a poor neighborhood and gaining access to private education, because I brought some of the ethos and expectation from my upbringing to my classroom.

Moore: I agree with the others on this, and have often said that teaching is the consummate profession. A highly accomplished teacher draws on everything s/he knows and has ever done to do the creative, dynamic work that is teaching. Among the experiences that helped me most were my background as a freelance journalist, and as a parent (I've raised 11 children — was a 30-year-old mother of four when I started teaching).

Duckworth: I was Piaget's student in Geneva. From Piaget I got the theoretical view that no one can know exactly what meaning somebody else has made. Words can express it to some extent, but you can't assume anybody is making the same meaning as you are, and everybody has their own path.

The other thing I got from them was the way of talking to kids. I learned from [Piaget's research partner Barbel] Inhelder about getting kids interested in what you want to talk about, and not giving them any hints.

How do you improve on the job?

Cockrum: I attend four or five conferences a year, sometimes more. Presenting at conferences also provides me the opportunity to reflect on my own practice. I'm connected online through Twitter and other social media, to keep myself connected to my PLN [personal learning network]. I make sure to balance my face-to-face professional development with my online professional development. I model for my students the act of being a constant learner.

What's the most important lesson you learned when you were just starting out?

Vilson: Stop taking things so personally, Jose. And if you break down emotionally one day, rest up the rest of the afternoon, go to sleep early, and get into school early the next day. Don't take the day off unless you're absolutely sick or something important is happening.

Cockrum: I had a student come to me during her break period very upset. She vented about a problem she was having and really struggling with. I kept trying to interject advice to help her solve the problem. Finally, she said, "Mr. Cockrum, I don't want advice, I just want someone to listen." I regularly remind myself: Students just need someone to listen. While advice can be helpful, the most beneficial thing I can provide in most situations is just to listen.

Bain: I'd just say that we have to learn constantly, about our students, their learning, our subjects, their society and lives, and so forth, and we just have to take advantage of all the opportunities we have to learn. All of the things that my colleagues have mentioned are important, but I'd emphasize three: Read, listen and talk. Read everything you can about learning and about your subject. Engage in conversations with other people who are also exploring the questions, ideas and information.

What's the biggest piece of advice you would share with an aspiring teacher?

Duckworth: One of the important qualities is to be able to listen well. And a teacher needs to believe in their students.

Moore: Network, network, network. Connect yourself to great teachers, and stay connected. I've been a networked teacher from the start of my career. In recent years there has been an exponential growth in the number and quality of teacher networks. Most of these are grass-roots, vibrant and vital. Some great examples include: Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory, English Companion Ning, Classroom 2.0, K12Online Conference, and hundreds of teacher-initiated and -maintained Twitter chats (#engchat, #sschat, [social studies], #scichat, #tlpchat [teach like a pirate] ...). Find the regularly updated list HERE.

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