Katie was everything I was not. Her wild laughter and forceful voice rumbled down the hallway ahead of her; kids basked in her feisty humor, but thought twice before crossing her. No, Katie wasn’t the popular girl in school that I wanted to be—she was the popular teacher that I wanted to be. Where I was timid and mostly at the mercy of my students’ attitudes and tiny attention spans, Katie was captivating and disarming. She commanded her students’ respect as well as their affection. And the effect of her appeal was striking: kids that wouldn’t open a book in my class were team leaders in hers; students that responded to my queries with rolled eyes kept their arms perpetually raised in her room, answering questions with such zeal and insight that I thought Katie’s kids must be the gifted, identical twins of the ones I taught.
Suddenly in charge of teaching math and English to dangerously hormonal seventh graders, Katie and I were both just three months out of college. Each of us had applied to the national nonprofit Teach For America, engaged in its intensive vetting process, and been selected out of 18,200 applicants to join its corps of new teachers. Like other new recruits of Teach For America (which members call TFA), we were sent to a very high-need school in a very low-income area, where we had to committed to teach two years. Katie soon joined the ranks of TFA teachers that the group’s own studies, as well as the one major independent report on the organization, have shown to be equally or more effective than more experienced educators. (She could also be counted among the 44 percent of TFA teachers who led their students to achieve one and a half years of growth or more during the 2009 school year.) I, on the other hand, was one of those new teachers whose struggle is both excruciating and epic. For my class, growth was out of the question; I was more focused on preventing an all out mutiny.
One of Teach For America’s core values is “disciplined thought.” As they put it on their website, they make use of “past experiences and data to draw lessons for the future.” This is no idle rhetoric. The organization has, in fact, been collecting and analyzing data about its teachers and their impact on students almost since its inception twenty years ago. As journalist Amanda Ripley writes in “What Makes A Great Teacher?”, which appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic, “almost half a million American children are being taught by Teach for America teachers this year, and the organization tracks test-score data, linked to each teacher, for 85 percent to 90 percent of those kids.” What all this data and analysis seem to show is that certain patterns do exist that help explain why some new teachers become Katies, while others look much more like I did.
Teach For America’s conclusions, based on its extensive research, about the specific qualities that the most effective teachers share are laid out in a new book written by the organization’s Steven Farr. (There is also an excellent website that accompanies the book: teachingasleadership.org) In the book, Farr describes TFA’s model of effective teaching, which the organization calls the Teaching As Leadership framework. It consists of six broad principles, broken down into twenty-eight corresponding teacher actions. The principles include “set big goals,” “plan purposefully,” and “work relentlessly.” In other words, they describe very explicit behaviors, which derive from particular mind-sets. What they don’t include are personality traits: “charisma,” “gregariousness,” “boldness.” True, many successful educators display some or all of those mannerisms. But the reverse is also true: many excellent teachers are reserved, introverted, and unassuming—and, of course, many ineffective teachers know how to talk loudly or make a room full of kids roll with laughter. More than any personal style, great teaching seems to stem from rigorous thinking and purposeful acting.
So what does this type of mind-set and behavior look like in actual teachers? The qualities I noticed in the great teachers I met both in and out of TFA looked a lot like the ones charted in the Teaching As Leadership framework. In terms of outlooks, a few stood out in these teachers. First was a sense of personal responsibility and possibility. They understood as well as anyone how many serious, sometimes life-threatening challenges their poor, inner-city or rural students confront daily. But these teachers also get that many of those problems are beyond their control. So instead, they focus on their own classrooms, molding them into alternate universes for their students, where they will be safe, respected, and challenged. From this perspective, within the four walls of the classroom the teacher alone is in charge of her students’ learning—a notion that is both humbling and empowering.
Closely related to this first mind-set was another one, characterized by a pragmatic and single-minded focus on solutions. Successful teachers tend not to be the ones grouped together in the faculty lounge, sharing donuts as well as war stories about their endless travails trying to make unwilling kids learn. Rather, effective educators want to know—and talk about—what’s going on in their classrooms, why, and what they can do, right now, to make them better. To this end, they collect objective data about their students’ performances, look for patterns, and make strategic decisions based on their analyses. It can be surprising for some observers to find similar issues arising in both the best- and worst-run classrooms. But if they visit a few weeks later it starts to make sense: the best teachers noticed the problems too and took concrete steps to address them (sometimes multiple times, refining their methods with each new trial). The ineffective teachers, on the hand, are still raging or despairing in the break room, rattling off countless problems, but few corresponding solutions.
There are other attitudes I noticed among the best educators: a fervent, dogged desire to be a great teacher; a willingness to work, a lot, for as long as it takes to make that happen; and the self-confidence to believe, in spite of all of their missteps and letdowns and shortcomings, that they have what it takes to be the kind of teacher that their students desperately need. I observed certain tendencies in these teachers, too. While they were generally reflective and thoughtful, at least when it was practical to be so, they tended to work quickly and decisively. Knowing how much they had to do to push their kids forward, they appeared always on the move, making each moment count, skillfully expending their time and energy where it was needed most. They also acted assertively and proactively. This doesn’t mean that they were necessarily bold and demanding. Rather, their near-obsessive focus on the end results they were striving for—and expecting of their students—enabled them to skirt considerations like self-consciousness and compelled them to make use of every resource at their disposal (and even some that really weren’t).
By the end of my two-year teaching commitment, I had improved my teaching tremendously. I still wasn’t the sort of breathtakingly skillful educator that Katie was (and continues to be), but I no longer feared a student insurrection every time I turned my back. Most importantly, I’d come to believe that I had the ability to be an effective instructor, that that didn’t require some invisible, innate ability, which some people are born with and others are not. When I think about Katie now and her amazing achievements, I suddenly remember things that I tended to overlook when I taught in the room next to her: the fact that she was always the first person in the building each morning, already hard at work when I arrived; the phone calls to parents she made on her way to and from work, even on the short breaks at weekend professional developments; the many times she, too, cried from stress and frustration and plain old exhaustion. As with any expert, she made what she did look easy. It was her tremendous effort and the efficient work habits that she’d honed through years of leadership in college and work that were invisible to casual observers—not some special, intrinsic talent.
What Teach For America’s findings suggest, and Katie and I confirm, is that the focus of educational reform should be on ensuring that all students have committed, effective teachers. Luckily, this doesn’t require principals to screen for candidates with some elusive, you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-it “x-factor.” Instead, recruiting and training can be based squarely on data gathered about effective teachers: what mind-sets and practices do they tend to have in common? Teach For America has demonstrated exactly what this type of data-driven selection and instruction can look like. As Ripley writes, “if school systems hired, trained, and rewarded teachers according to the principles Teach For America has identified, then teachers would not need to work so hard. They would be operating in a system designed in a radically different way—designed, that is, for success.”