For the last four months, as part of a yearlong search to understand what great teaching looks like by visiting 11th grade English classrooms across Los Angeles, I’ve had a chance to observe great teachers in schools across the socioeconomic spectrum, from a very low-income community in Watts to an elite private school in Sherman Oaks.
Despite radical differences in approach, personality and philosophy, I’ve been struck by the realization that the teachers I’m following share five common practices. And in the end, these practices are rooted in the same state of being.
What they all have in common is faith – not religious faith but an unwavering belief in something or someone, even in the absence of material evidence. All great teachers have faith in their students, in the process of learning and in themselves. It is what underlies the five practices I’ve observed in great teachers:
- Great teachers listen to their students.
Listening is more than just sitting around hearing about their students’ problems, though many times these teachers do that. Instead of coming in with a prepackaged educational agenda, great teachers first listen closely to the educational and socio-emotional needs of their students. This listening can take the form of assessment tests, but also involves a deep awareness of and respect for the lives and home cultures of their students, whether they are at-risk students in a very low-income community or privileged students at a private school. “Ms. Castillo got to know me,” says Genesis, a 16-year-old girl in Cynthia Castillo’s 11th grade English class at Augustus Hawkins RISE Academy in South Los Angeles, a school centered on community involvement. At her previous school, Genesis says, the teachers were nice but never talked to the kids outside of class. Here, Cynthia spent time talking to her outside of class and encouraged her to take on leadership roles. Now she’s president of the class – and she’s turned her grades around. “Ms. Castillo doesn’t just talk to me like a student,” says Genesis. “She talks to me like a person.”
- Great teachers have an authentic vision for their students.
Some of the teachers I’m following are interested in standards-based education and some are not. But no matter what they think of standards, all have a personal, authentic vision of what they want for their students. Because they listen to their students, the vision they have is a response to what their students need, not to some need of their own. This vision does not have to be abstract; for some teachers, especially in skill-based subjects, their vision is mastery of a specific body of content, which they believe will be invaluable to their students. For others, though, the vision has to do with personal qualities: inculcating a lifelong curiosity or turning their students into lifelong readers. For an example of vision in action, read this extremely moving post in the Good Men Project by a student in Dennis Danziger’s class at Venice High, who was astonished to find that he loved to read when Dennis “punished” him by sending him to the library for an hour every day. Ernesto Ponce would never have set out on this unconventional educational path if not for Dennis’ vision of what he wanted for his students.
- Great teachers have an unequivocal belief in all students’ potential.
By “potential” I do not mean only that they believe that all of their students will go to college. In some communities, like the elite private school Harvard-Westlake, because of the extensive resources of the parent body, college is inevitable for most students before they’re even born, so a “belief” in this “potential” would not be meaningful. In other settings, like the Special Ed classroom of the amazing Carlos Gordillo at the Roybal Learning Center in a low-income neighborhood near downtown L.A., college is highly unlikely for most of his students. What I mean instead by “potential” is that in all of the teachers I’m following, I see a belief, sometimes one that flies in the face of years of evidence to the contrary, that the student in front of them is capable of achievement beyond what anyone might think possible. The teachers I’m following understand that life can take astonishing and unpredictable turns. Because of that belief, they do not ever give up even on students who never appear to make progress.
- Great teachers are calm, persistent pushers.
Remember the scene in “Mean Girls” when math teacher Tina Fey admits she’s “a pusher”? The teachers I’m observing do not ever stop pushing their students no matter how low or high their level and without regard to their students’ complaints or apparent lack of interest. And they remain amazingly calm. Even when aggravated, they seem able to take a breath and brush the moment off. They don’t seem to take anything personally because they have faith in their vision and in their students’ potential. Kristin Damo, who teaches English at Locke High School in Watts, often faces classes with several students who talk continually in class and often wander from their seats to chat with others – despite very clear class rules and Kristin’s consistent enforcement of them. Despite the continual challenge of working with students who cannot or will not stay on task, Kristin never loses her temper, gently and repeatedly reminding off-track students what they need to be doing, leading them back to their seats, and complimenting them personally when they do succeed at focusing or completing work.
- Great teachers practice non-attachment to short-term results.
“Non-attachment” is not a lack of interest. The teachers I’m observing are definitely interested in short-term results, reading student work closely and tracking their students’ progress. But – and this is where they diverge radically from the current perceived wisdom about teaching – they do not invest emotionally in those results or take them as evidence of success or failure, either for their students or for themselves. The teachers I’m observing seem to take a much longer view of education. They see their classes, and what their students learn from their classes, as something they hope their students will carry with them for the rest of their lives. They understand that what their students carry with them may be quite unexpected or go beyond the narrow technical definition of the subject matter. They are aware that they may never know the impact their class has had on someone. “You wrestle with yourself,” says Carlos Gordillo of the challenges of teaching students in Special Ed. “But I’ve seen kids turn it around. You think it’s the end, but it’s not.” For Kristin Damo, it’s about the hope that the practices they learn in class will translate to a lifetime of intellectual curiosity. “At the end of the day, they may not remember what I taught them,” she says, philosophical after a particularly difficult class. “But they’ll remember that I was a person who cared about them on a fundamental level.”
Which leads me to faith. Because at heart, all of these practices are rooted in a faith in the work itself, in the daily practice of showing up and engaging in the struggle of learning with their students. People burn out when they lose this faith; that’s what happened to me. Demoralized by a lack of the visible progress I wanted to see and sufficient evidence that I was making a difference, I became unable to keep going.
As we talk about the best way to attract and retain good teachers, what would happen if we talked about developing this faith – in our students, in the process of learning, and in ourselves?
Ellie Herman taught English electives for five years at Animo Pat Brown Charter High School in Los Angeles, a career change after 20 years as a TV writer. She is taking a year off to write a blog, Gatsby In L.A., following the lives of 11th grade English teachers across the socioeconomic spectrum. A version of this post first appeared in her blog.
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