Ben Davis is a School Reform Blogging Fellow.

For Minnesota students, great teachers matter. We may not be trained evaluators, but the evidence is in the classroom and it’s clear as day: The difference between good and great (and for that matter, bad and great) is striking. Successful teachers are dynamic, constantly adapting to the needs of their students and engage them in meaningful ways.

But what are the characteristics that make this difference between good and great? For me, great teachers are masters of:

1. Differentiated learning
A great teacher dedicates ample time to work with students falling behind. They also approach the gifted students and challenge them (such as in my math class, helping students explore a math-based application in the real world). Through this personalized system, a great teacher brings out the best in students even in a large class setting. I have since learned this is called “differentiated learning” in the teaching profession. I’m sure years of research and trial and error demonstrate that this is a best practice … But why is this not common practice? Perhaps, no matter how many years of service, effective teaching is an art.

2. Student engagement
If teachers only had to worry about teaching a lesson plan within the four walls of a classroom we wouldn’t have an achievement gap staring us in the face. Instead, great teachers find ways to motivate apathetic and underperforming students, and challenge high-performing students by engaging them in positive activities. I think this is achieved in two key ways: Tutoring and extra-curricular activities.

Teachers are instrumental in helping students connect the dots so they thrive in school, and often this is in the form of tutoring or additional instruction so their learning is on pace. In my experience, teacher-driven or peer-run tutoring help perpetuate success in the school by bringing students who are falling behind up to grade level. Better yet, I’ve noticed that tutoring contributes to a cohesive environment because it often involves upperclassmen assisting underclassmen.

And for those of who are involved in extra-curricular activities at my school we generally perform better academically and head to college in larger numbers. But we also rely on teachers to help engage us in these activities.

For teachers, it’s all about helping students reach their potential. And so much of our learning happens outside of the classroom. Teachers who are dedicated to helping students find learning environments outside of the walls of the classroom are exceptional. The ability to expand intellectual curiosity and academic rigor in meaningful ways is by all means an art.

My ideas involve dedication on the part of a teacher. This is fitting, for great teachers are integral in preparing college- and career-ready students and sustaining successful schools. I believe students, parents and the community at-large should engage in a broader conversation on the qualities of great teachers. Once we better recognize these differentiating characteristics between good and great teachers let’s enable schools to capitalize on them so they can attract, develop and retain the best.

How do you define a great teacher?

Ben Davis is a MinnCAN School Reform Blogging Fellow.


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