One of the first books I read when I began preparing for a role in educational administration was Ten Traits of Highly Effective Teachers: How to Hire, Coach, and Mentor Successful Teachers by Elaine McEwan-Adkins. Published in 2001, the author concisely describes how the following qualities define great teachers, in terms of their character, skill-specific qualities, and intellectual traits:

  1. Mission-driven and passionate
  2. Positive and real
  3. A teacher-leader
  4. “With-it-ness”
  5. Style
  6. Motivational expertise
  7. Instructional effectiveness
  8. Book learning
  9. Street smarts
  10. A mental life

A fairly all-encompassing list. Applicable 10+ years later? I believe so. Kind of timeless, in a sense. The descriptors surrounding those qualities may evolve as does a teacher’s role each year.

I do a lot of thinking about teacher quality. I am able to interact with many teachers in both face-to-face and online settings each and every day. As some administrators may be able to tell you: Almost without fail, you can spot a quality teacher by simply existing in their presence for a few short minutes. There’s something about the way she interacts with students, is organized and prepared, is a fluid communicator and skillfully asks engaging questions, is capable of captivating an audience. He’s someone who has command of a learning environment, and it’s an absolute delight to watch this teaching and learning in action. A quality teacher has “with-it-ness,” as McEwan-Adkins describes.

The essentials of 21st century teaching

Several weeks ago my colleague Steve Goldberg shared a post on his blog that was not about teacher quality, but instead focused on Interdisciplinary Reading.  I couldn’t help but be impressed as I read through Steve’s depiction of how he would lead students in an interdisciplinary exploration of current events, by engaging them first with two paragraphs of online content from The New Yorker, questioning and probing with eventual references made to other sources such as the Mega Penny Project and Science Daily, then learning about the life of Wangari Maathai, using web-based conversion tools to find the number of acres in Germany, and finishing with a literary discussion surrounding Red Scarf Girl.

Wow. All of that could emerge by reading just two paragraphs of content? It could. But my immediate push-back question to Steve was: How many teachers could support this journey? How many possess the necessary pedagogical and intellectual skill sets to do as you’ve described here, particularly with the fluid reference of online resources? As a result of some of our discussions in PLP, Steve began this Google doc brainstorming essential qualities of a “21st century educator.” Which of these skills do we see in our teachers today? In new teachers? Which are most desired, and why? (Feel free to add your thoughts to this document.)

Also consider the perspective of Mary Ann Reilly in her post Unpacking Common Core Standards. She sets the stage for her work with this introduction:

In order to better understand the middle school ELA Common Core State Standards, deconstructing the actions taken when engaging with a literary text can helpful.  In this post, a series of performance and analysis tasks are explored and this is followed by examining the CCSS in order to see which of the standards were attended to. One of the ‘model’ texts included in the Common Core is William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”

Visit Reilly’s post to see evidence of this task with supporting media, instructional strategies, technology integration, and details of student engagement. I am not a middle school administrator, so I do not know if what she describes is typical instruction at this level, but it seems to me that due to her vast content knowledge and ability to pull from a well-developed pedagogical base, she can skillfully embed technology to enhance learning, while ensuring the focus is on the learner and the desired outcomes.

Being able to plan for instruction in the manner that Reilly describes, and guiding students through a learning journey such as Steve depicts, are not skills that an average teacher will simply “pick up on” if, all of a sudden, we ask them to “learn about technology” in the traditional sense. Professional development where we bring in a Smartboard trainer or we teach faculty about specific tools will not lead to enduring understandings about teaching and learning.

Developing familiarity with the technology can be a great first step, yes. But a realization of how technology impacts student learning is a much larger issue than just deciding which web 2.0 tool is appropriate for use with a lesson. Do our teachers know what types of technology will enrich — or potentially detract from — content or the learning process, and why?

We need better professional learning models

Perhaps in our work designing professional learning opportunities for teachers, both in the pre-service stage and for those currently practicing, we need to consider models such as TPACK.

Ideally, we’d wish for our teachers to have a strong content knowledge base, be able to draw from extensive pedagogical knowledge, and have a deep understanding of technological knowledge that would allow for seamless integrations of technology appropriate to enhance both content and pedagogy. The complete teacher. More often:

– We encounter teachers who are wildly knowledgeable about their content area, but who lack desired pedagogical skills.

– Or we may find teachers who can implement strategies in the classroom and who have developed rapport and meaningful relationships with their students, but who lack the desired depth of content knowledge.

– Or we discover “techy” teachers who have an affinity for the latest tools and gadgets, who are networked in their own learning, but who can’t translate those skills to meaningful learning for their students because their knowledge of content and pedagogy are underdeveloped.

So we start pondering teacher qualifications, teacher preparation programs, teacher evaluation systems. We revisit Danielson and Marzano and Stronge. What are we asking new teachers to know and be able to do? Are their internship/student teaching experiences supporting their endeavors, or holding them back if they are placed in schools where “traditional” learning models are expected and enforced?

Asking hard questions about teacher development

Are we ensuring teachers are well-rounded in their knowledge bases? Are we making relationship-building with students, families, and colleagues a priority? Once they begin in their profession, how do we continually support teachers through the changes in educational practices, updates with technology, and shifts in curriculum that result? Are we asking teachers to be connected learners? Are the high-stakes teacher evaluation systems emerging in states across the country going to support administrators in boosting teacher quality? Or are they going to stifle us?

What can we do, as administrators, to promote teacher learning on a daily basis? How can we structure our organizations to allow for collaboration and communication among peers, embed opportunities for both face-to-face and online learning, help our teachers stay informed and familiar with current research and practices (in content, pedagogy, and technology), model for them that we ourselves are growing professionally, and help the organization as a whole realize that complacency must be eradicated?

How often are administrators and school leaders asking teachers (and ourselves): What’s one thing you wish you could learn more about? Learn it. What is one strategy you’d like to improve? Practice it. When is the last time you reflected upon something you did in your classroom with students? Plan to do it next week, and reflect continuously. When is the last time you asked your students what they needed you to be? Allow their passions and needs to influence your work together.

For all of us, the time to step outside of our comfort zones is now.

It’s time to learn like never before.


Photos – Creative Commons: Kevin Jarrett, WoodleyWonderworks

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Lyn Hilt

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