THE BLOG

I'm Still in Awe of Great Teachers

10/05/2013 01:54 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2013

"Kids! Sit up straight and behave. We have a guest. Everyone say together, 'Goooood moooooorn-ing, Chancellor Rheeeeeee.'"

I visited and observed thousands of classrooms during my years running the D.C. school system, and that was the type of introduction I usually heard.

But not on this particular day, in this particular classroom, with this particular teacher. In fact, my presence went entirely unnoticed and unrecognized, like I wasn't even there. And for good reason.

It was a third grade class. The teacher was an older woman with more than 30 years of experience. It's inconceivable, I remember thinking, how long she has been teaching!

She ran her classroom with a quiet but commanding authority. From the moment of my entrance, it was clear she was in her element, totally focused on the task at hand. It was like watching the Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace; she had a job to do, and absolutely no one--including me--was going to distract her, or her students.

One of the first things I noticed was how silent the room was; the kids weren't talking at all. This sometimes makes me nervous, because it can mean they're afraid of a very strict, disciplinarian-type teacher. But that wasn't the case. They were just completely immersed in their studies.

It appeared to be some kind of vocabulary and spelling exercise. Less important to me was which subject was being taught, however; I was amazed at how it was being taught.

The teacher had an entire system of learning set up, with very clear structures. Each boy and girl sat at their desk, working diligently, and then--without prompting--one would march up to the teachers' desk with assignment in hand. The teacher would work individually with that student for a minute or two, and then the student would return to their seat...at which point another student would march up to the teacher...and on and on it went.

It was constant, those short bursts of one-on-one interaction.

I wasn't sure exactly how the system functioned, but the kids sure did, and it was one of the most extraordinary things I've seen. Those young boys and girls may not have had a routine at home, but they clearly had one at school, and it was working.

After a little while, I also realized that different students were working on different vocabulary lists, based on individual ability. In education-speak, that's called "differentiation," and it's one of the hardest things for a teacher to pull off.

There are some classrooms that you can just tell are high performing, even after only a few minutes of observation; this was one of those classrooms. I didn't need a test score or report card to know those kids were learning.

The teacher's work became even more remarkable after I visited the rest of the school. While her classroom radiated productivity and efficiency, all the others were chaotic and unorganized.

The students at that school came from the same neighborhoods and had similar backgrounds--socioeconomic and otherwise. That third grade teacher didn't have a gifted or special group of kids, but because of her structure and leadership, her kids were excelling.

Just as every student is built differently, so is every teacher. Some are calm and reserved, others are all over the classroom with limitless energy.

But no matter their differences, truly great teachers are bound by a few common threads: an unyielding belief that every single boy and girl has the capacity to learn; high standards and expectations; the ability to identify the passion within each child, and then inspire them to use that passion to reach for the stars.

When I think of great teachers, I think of ones like the 30-year veteran I saw that morning in D.C. She represents the many extraordinary men and women who teach our kids--not because they seek fame or fanfare, but because they simply care about making a difference.

On this World Teacher Day, I want to just say "Thank You." Thank you to that 30-year veteran. And thank you to all the great teachers who work every day to improve a child's life.