TEACHABLE MOMENTS: How to know a great teacher

Tommy Fairweather
Tommy Fairweather

Dana Goldstein stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article that you can tell a great teacher by assessing four qualities, none of which can really be measured by student test scores.  The wise parent will note the qualities and put in a request for a teacher who possesses at least a majority of them.

 An intellectual life outside the classroom demonstrates a teacher’s love of learning. Clues to this love of learning are obvious if the teacher belongs to book or professional groups, or is passionate about a hobby. This intellectual life outside of school spills over into the classroom and the teacher becomes a living model of the love of learning for your child.

Great teachers believe intelligence is achievable, not inborn, which means your child’s teacher thinks the child can advance. Dr. Carol Dweck, noted psychology professor at Stanford indicates in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, that children should develop a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. A total focus on grades instead of what they might learn is a fixed mind set. Learning for its own sake regardless of grades is a growth mindset. My quote to students, “It is not what your mind is capable of that makes you gifted.  It is what you do with that power that makes you gifted.”  This applies to students of all capabilities.

Great teachers are data driven. They pay very close attention to your child’s “work.” The teacher will often pretest to find out what the child already knows and then focus on what the child needs to learn. That way the child’s time is not wasted by going over what he or she already knows.  The great teachers also help the children identify the ways they learn best. They teach the children how to record what they are learning. Scientific American reported recently that using note cards created by the student are the most effective study tool despite current technology.

Great teachers are question askers. Teachers who ask higher level questions will get your child to think about the topic, helping it to stick in his or her  brain. A recent study quoted by Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question (YouTube presentation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scu-4xhYIVc), quoted research that found a child asks 40,000 questions between the ages for 4 and 5. However, the girls begin to ask fewer questions at age five or six. According to Mr. Berger, the ability to ask the more beautiful question will be important in the future careers. You want your child’s teacher to ask higher level questions and encourage your child to ask such questions as well.

There are two other important qualities — creativity and physical fitness.

Physical fitness is very important for a teacher to have because the job of teaching is very stressful.  Being physical will help reduce the stress. When a teacher is stressed, he or she might take it out unknowingly on students. You can tell if a teacher gets regular exercise by the activities the teacher chooses. The teacher may be a member of a gym or partake of many local water activities, like paddle boarding and swimming.

If a teacher is creative, he/she will teach your child to think outside the box. A great sense of humor is one clue that a person is creative. If the teacher writes, paints, or participates in dramatics, these are other clues. They often encourage their students to complete many projects or even encourage children to enter competitions like Problem Solving Bowl or Exploravision. Also, they encourage children to enter writing and art contests.

I know you are wondering how to find out this information. Getting to know parents with children in classes ahead of your child and communicating with them will be your best way to find out the answers you want.  Then you could write a letter to the principal outlining the qualities of the teacher you would want your child to have next school year. It would be wise to remember you are your child’s first teacher and strive for these qualities, yourself.

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher and educational consultant who lives in Destin.