What Makes a Good Teacher?

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

This fall, for the first time in a decade, I'm sitting on the other side of education's fourth wall. Yup, I'm a student again, and instead of giving lectures and planning activities, I'm taking notes and participating in discussion sections. It's a lot of work, but it's also quite fun - a welcome break from the challenges of the real world.

Once you've been a teacher, though, you can't quite look at your own teachers through the same eyes. So it's hard to ignore that fact that some of my teachers, despite their brilliance and passion, are a bit - dare I say it? - disorganized. They'll throw out a list of names we've never heard of, or start to make a point, then digress for five minutes on a counterargument before coming back to their main point. It's enough to make your head spin.

Now when this happens, the teacher voice in the back of my head screams: this is not good teaching! Disorganized, discursive - when I taught this way, it confused and alienated my students. If my principals saw me teach this way, they dinged me, with good reason: teacher quality has more impact on student achievement than anything else that goes on at school. (See here for one of many studies on this.)

But despite some disorganized lectures, I'm learning a lot here, and so are the other students. We learn, of course, because after class we get together and decipher our notes, because we do the readings, and because we're highly motivated to master this material.

All of which made me think about a fact with far-reaching implications for the education policy debate: good teaching is context-dependent.

What do I mean by that? Imagine a clash of contexts: if my Yale professors drove down to my high school in inner-city DC and tried to teach there. They would, to put it lightly, run into some problems. Like classroom management. My professors here don't need to do much to manage their classes - they approach the podium, clear their throats, and we shut up and listen for the next hour. This would not happen in most high schools, in the inner-city or the suburbs. Different context, different "good teaching."

The same principle applies when you compare K-12 teachers working in different socioeconomic contexts. Teaching rigorous classes at wealthy schools is a challenge, but it's a very different challenge from teaching rigorous classes at low-income schools. Classroom management works differently. So does curriculum; inner-city kids can do the same challenging activities as suburban kids, but they often need more scaffolding to get there. Educating kids from low-income backgrounds also demands more of a focus on skills - both cognitive and social - and motivation than teaching middle and upper-class students.

How does all this relate to the achievement gap? There seems to be this idea out there that good teachers are good teachers, and if we can just get more of them to go work in inner-city schools, everyone will be better off. I'm thinking of one of the criteria from the Race to the Top proposed rule: "Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals."

Hmm. Sure, it's absolutely important - perhaps the most important factor - to have good teachers and principals in low-income schools, but it's not a matter of equitable distribution of a commodity (teacher talent). Urban education and suburban education require different - though overlapping - skill sets. For a variety of reasons teachers who flourish in one might struggle in another - and arbitrarily moving them between contexts won't help anybody.

What do we need to do instead? First, we have to get better at training teachers. Most ed schools don't prepare teachers to succeed in urban environments. Some do - Hunter College's Teacher YOU Institute and Harvard's Teacher Education Program come to mind - as do some non-profits like Teach for America. But these programs are the exceptions, not the rule.

Just as important, we need to create contexts in which good teachers can flourish. I'm talking about the no-brainers here: living salaries that allow teachers to raise families of their own, capacity in the school to help students and teachers meet high standards, and services outside of the classroom to ensure that all students come to school ready to learn.

For the next two years I'll have the privilege of studying in an environment where teachers' strengths are aligned with students' needs. Many students in low-income communities won't. If we're going to close the achievement gap, this is an injustice we need to fix.