Ellie Herman

Ellie Herman

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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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  1. Ellie Herman 5 years ago5 years ago

    Thanks so much for asking. Did I have the qualities of a great teacher? Well, if I define the key aspect of great teaching as the ability to have faith in the process, then no. I burned out for a hundred reasons--workload, lack of resources, frustration with one-size-fits-all teacher evaluations--but fundamentally I burned out because I lost faith that I was making a difference, and it was just too hard to fight … Read More

    Thanks so much for asking. Did I have the qualities of a great teacher? Well, if I define the key aspect of great teaching as the ability to have faith in the process, then no. I burned out for a hundred reasons–workload, lack of resources, frustration with one-size-fits-all teacher evaluations–but fundamentally I burned out because I lost faith that I was making a difference, and it was just too hard to fight that hard when it felt futile.
    This year has been an incredible experience, again for so many reasons, but one is that among the teachers I’m following, all of them do seem to be able to let go of perfectionism at a certain point. I think that’s what I couldn’t do–I couldn’t let go of needing external reassurance that I’d done a terrific job. That’s where faith comes in, I think. The teachers I’m observing who’ve hung in there for a decade or more seem to be able to accept that they’re not going to do everything perfectly or reach every student; they seem to be willing to persist in the absence of evidence of success at times and even in the absence of sufficient resources to do an ideal job. I’ve learned so much from them, but that’s what I’ve learned above all.
    So I think, or hope, my experience does have some applications to others because in this weirdly paradoxical way, I think you need to be able to both hold onto your idealism and let go of it in the day to day. You need to be able to distinguish what, of the noise generated by new standards and demands, is of value and what is just noise. YOu need to be able to accept that you’ll never be able to do everything you want to do, but that you’ll do a lot more by staying than you will by leaving. You need to believe that you yourself are of value, even if you’re imperfect and conditions may be anywhere from marginal to disastrous.
    So I guess I mean we maybe need to redefine “great” to include the ability to stay with the practice. What can we do as teachers, as a society, to support that ability?

  2. Don 5 years ago5 years ago

    Hi Ellie, Thank you for taking the time to do this research. You said you burned out of the profession. Looking back do you believe you had the qualities of a great teacher? I'm asking because if you say yes that presents a dilemma. How does one be a great teacher and remain teaching over the long term? Conversely, if great teaching leads to burnout, are lesser teachers more likely to be in for the long haul? … Read More

    Hi Ellie,

    Thank you for taking the time to do this research.

    You said you burned out of the profession. Looking back do you believe you had the qualities of a great teacher? I’m asking because if you say yes that presents a dilemma. How does one be a great teacher and remain teaching over the long term? Conversely, if great teaching leads to burnout, are lesser teachers more likely to be in for the long haul? And what would that say about the quality of the teaching profession in general? Is inspirational teaching likely to wane after some period of time? Is it periodic and ephemeral? Can great teachers remain great teachers through the daily grind year in and out?

    Clearly your own experience is unique, but to what extent do you think your experience has universal application? I burned out of the profession many years ago and I did so for one reason: the expectations that I had for students were much higher than those of the school/district/state/society.

  3. Paul 5 years ago5 years ago

    Thanks for the response, Ellie. I'm curious what your plans are after this year off for writing. Improving teacher working conditions and compensation poses a real chicken-and-egg problem. As long as legions of young people remain willing to sign up, there will be no impetus for reform. Enrollment in California's teacher preparation programs has fallen drastically since the middle of the last decade, and yet there is a surplus of teachers, even in former shortage areas like math. We … Read More

    Thanks for the response, Ellie.

    I’m curious what your plans are after this year off for writing.

    Improving teacher working conditions and compensation poses a real chicken-and-egg problem. As long as legions of young people remain willing to sign up, there will be no impetus for reform.

    Enrollment in California’s teacher preparation programs has fallen drastically since the middle of the last decade, and yet there is a surplus of teachers, even in former shortage areas like math.

    We all agree that pay has stagnated and that benefits have been cut, but perhaps more alarming is the increase in workload brought about by spikes in class size in all grades, in the years following the financial crisis. (There is statistical evidence of these spikes, which I have cited in comments on other articles.)

    Teacher workload is also affected by rising proportions of special education students and English Learners. I am all for inclusion, and believe that the universal cognitive and linguistic adaptations recommended for serving special education students and English Learners result in clearer instruction for every single person in the room. (I am with you on the importance of having faith in all students, incidentally!) Alas, not one second of extra time has been provided for teachers to make universal accommodations, let alone individual ones.

    My feeling is that even more young people need to start saying “no” and exiting (or not entering) the teaching profession in California. Only then will political debate shift away from peripheral questions, such as ranking and firing teachers, toward important ones, such as developing and retaining a stable teacher workforce, restoring reasonable class sizes, and leaving time in the day for teachers to accommodate present-day demographic and social realities.

    Fighting in-place has not been effective. After four years with no COLAs, the local union in my final school district was ecstatic about a 2.5% cost-of-living increase, and accepted reductions in the employer share of health insurance for the privilege! Proposals for inching back toward smaller classes in just a few grades were essentially laughed off the table.

    I can’t imagine who really benefits from a demoralized, overworked, and economically insecure teacher pool.

    Replies

    • Manuel 5 years ago5 years ago

      I can’t imagine who really benefits from a demoralized, overworked, and economically insecure teacher pool. Oh, Paul, surely you can imagine who really benefits: it is those who don't want public education to teach the population to think for themselves. It is those who don't want the competition for their own children. It is those who are not thinking of the future but the immediate satisfaction that comes from seeing people be shoved down to the … Read More

      I can’t imagine who really benefits from a demoralized, overworked, and economically insecure teacher pool.

      Oh, Paul, surely you can imagine who really benefits: it is those who don’t want public education to teach the population to think for themselves. It is those who don’t want the competition for their own children. It is those who are not thinking of the future but the immediate satisfaction that comes from seeing people be shoved down to the bottom.

      It is those people who benefit. Teachers are just the latest group to get in the way.

      • navigio 5 years ago5 years ago

        And taxpayers.

    • Ellie Herman 5 years ago5 years ago

      I completely see your point, but I think leaving (or not entering) the profession is not the answer. For all the problems of overvaluing young, inexpensive teachers, I think our students desperately need both the wisdom of older teachers like myself AND the freshness of new teachers. Right now I'm at the CATE conference where I'm seeing many wonderful, smart, dedicated young newcomers. Our students deserve these teachers, too. I don't think that … Read More

      I completely see your point, but I think leaving (or not entering) the profession is not the answer. For all the problems of overvaluing young, inexpensive teachers, I think our students desperately need both the wisdom of older teachers like myself AND the freshness of new teachers. Right now I’m at the CATE conference where I’m seeing many wonderful, smart, dedicated young newcomers. Our students deserve these teachers, too.
      I don’t think that fighting in place has been ineffective. I think it’s been far slower than any of us wish that it had been. But I do think changes are happening and will continue to happen. All this evaluation madness will pass, just as the NCLB madness passed. For all the craziness, when I observe teachers in classrooms, what I see happening is overwhelmingly good in spite of everything.
      So yes, we need to continue the fight for decent working conditions and for the resources we need to do a good job. But having spent a year out of the field, I personally feel I’ll do more good in a classroom than outside of it. Will I still think this in a year? I don’t know. But I think overall things will be better when we have more dedicated people in the classroom, whether experienced or new, than less.

  4. Ellie Herman 5 years ago5 years ago

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you both are saying. We work in a system that does everything possible to undermine our faith in ourselves, and which is increasingly predicated on the assumption that we are incompetent, forcing us to accept scripted curricula and other measures designed to prevent us from acting autonomously. It sounds like neither of you has yet participated yet in a one-size-fits-all evaluation system, complete with a rubric that rates … Read More

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you both are saying. We work in a system that does everything possible to undermine our faith in ourselves, and which is increasingly predicated on the assumption that we are incompetent, forcing us to accept scripted curricula and other measures designed to prevent us from acting autonomously. It sounds like neither of you has yet participated yet in a one-size-fits-all evaluation system, complete with a rubric that rates your every gesture and utterance with a numeric value. Don’t even start me on that one. As I said, I burned out and left.

    Call me a cynic, but I do believe that the conditions in which we work will always be to some degree insane. And yet I do see teachers who–incredibly–are able to tune out the noise and get down to what really matters. From the back of the classroom, I can see how much of a difference they’re making to their students. In spite of everything.

    The question of pay is a totally separate and urgent question. I have ranted in other spaces about the abysmal funding for education and for teachers in this state and I will continue to do so. If I seem to be suggesting that faith alone can compensate for the disgracefully low pay and eroding benefits for teachers, I need to clarify that I absolutely do not think that faith alone can be enough in the absence of sustainable working conditions.

    So no, faith in the practice alone is absolutely nowhere near enough. But I do think that without it, you can’t last–even with adequate pay. The work is so extraordinarily challenging–and there is so much hysteria and negativity surrounding us.

  5. Paul 5 years ago5 years ago

    "[M]any great teachers are being driven out of the profession because no one is displaying faith in them and their abilities to teach without being micromanaged to within an inch of their lives." Well said, Dr. Boitnott! Elsewhere on this site there are discussions going on even now with a parent who is adamant that a large segment of the teacher workforce is incompetent and should be summarily fired. When I taught, the lack of respect from … Read More

    “[M]any great teachers are being driven out of the profession because no one is displaying faith in them and their abilities to teach without being micromanaged to within an inch of their lives.”

    Well said, Dr. Boitnott! Elsewhere on this site there are discussions going on even now with a parent who is adamant that a large segment of the teacher workforce is incompetent and should be summarily fired.

    When I taught, the lack of respect from certain administrators, and from certain parents, definitely affected me. I was accustomed to normal professional work, where skill, initiative and decisiveness were welcomed. (My colleagues and clients also observed what I’d thought were basic rules of professional etiquette, such as making appointments.)

    In teaching today, psychological survival means shutting up and acceding to administrators’ and parents’ every wish. Being knowledgeable, good at imparting knowledge, and fair to all stakeholders are not success factors for teachers. That’s a message that these well-intentioned but unrealistic chronicles leave out. It’s a message of vital importance to young people who are choosing to make public education their livelihood.

    “Faith is not enough to sustain those who are struggling on stagnant salaries and who are dealing with feelings of depression and demoralization because they don’t feel respected.”

    This is also true. Teachers must contend with the meagre starting salaries, the anemic salary growth, and here in California, the precarious early years of at-will employment followed by more years of layoff risk. Now, new teachers in California will also enjoy reduced pension benefits. (Even before pension reform, STRS was the least generous of the state’s main public sector pension plans.)

    Faith doesn’t pay student loans, rent increases, or rising health insurance premiums.

  6. Kitty J. Boitnott, Ph.D., NBCT 5 years ago5 years ago

    I absolutely agree that great teachers must have faith in their students and in themselves. They must also have faith that the work they do makes a difference in the lives of the students they teach and touch each day. The trouble is that many great teachers are being driven out of the profession because no one is displaying faith in them and their abilities to teach without being micromanaged to within an inch of … Read More

    I absolutely agree that great teachers must have faith in their students and in themselves. They must also have faith that the work they do makes a difference in the lives of the students they teach and touch each day. The trouble is that many great teachers are being driven out of the profession because no one is displaying faith in them and their abilities to teach without being micromanaged to within an inch of their lives. The new evaluation models are demoralizing and fail to meet the bare standards of validity. The scripted curriculum and pacing guides are an insult to their training and their intelligence. The bureaucrats in charge of the overall system have managed to suck the fun out of teaching for too many of us. It is about to hit the breaking point. Faith is not enough to sustain those who are struggling on stagnant salaries and who are dealing with feelings of depression and demoralization because they don’t feel respected. Faith is a key factor, I agree. But it isn’t enough to keep great teachers in the classroom indefinitely.