“What Makes a Great Teacher?”

Recently I have found myself the target of unsolicited advice from all my well-meaning teacher friends.  In my final year of undergrad I face the unenviable task of having to make a rather difficult decision about the course my post-graduation life will take.  My aforementioned friends, chief among them my 5th grade, Boston Public School teaching fiancée, have strongly advocated for jumping right into the classroom with initial licensure.  I suspect my fiancée has ulterior motives (read as: financial) for wanting me to jumpstart my teaching career, but the general consensus of the chorus is that the best way for one to “become” a teacher is to teach; not to learn to teach.  Of course, a master’s degree is a foregone conclusion, a necessary slip of paper (and attendant set of experiences) that allows you to attain permanent licensure, so I will enroll and (fingers crossed) graduate from a program at some point, but I find myself indecisive about when.

Thankfully, Dan Brown, in his article “What Makes a Great Teacher?” addresses, albeit obliquely, my conundrum.  First a little background is due.  Fresh out of a liberal arts education, Brown was drawn to teaching.  He took advantage of an alternative certification teaching program, and after graduating found himself tasked with teaching a classroom of 26 nine-year olds, in an urban school in New York.  He soon found that his “idealism and passion…and good intentions were little match for the daily grind”, and resigned after his first year.  Beaten, but not down for the count, Brown hit the reset button, and in doing so, put himself on the path to becoming a great teacher.

Brown would go on to graduate from a masters in education, and take a position at the SEED public charter schools in Washington D.C., where he found support from the administration and from his colleagues, support he did not feel back in his first year of teaching.  From these experiences Brown has learned that “it takes a village to build an accomplished teacher”, that is to say, it takes the concerted effort of many people, not the teacher’s alone, to make an average teacher into a great one.  Brown highlights the value of what he calls his “pre-service”, or master’s education, where he had access to veteran teachers, “room to experiment with my practice, and access to one-on-one feedback from mentors everyday”.  He even goes so far as to assert that “time to learn the ropes of the craft and to observe a range of veteran educators should be non-negotiable for incoming teachers”.  After reading his anecdotal evidence, and considering my own concerns re: jumping into the classroom, I’m now more inclined to believe he’s on to something.  A master electrician does not become so, after all, just by poking his head into the switch box.  It’s a craft that takes years of apprenticeship under knowledgeable experts to practice expertly, and so to with teaching.

Brown also discusses the benefits to having support from the administration and his colleagues, the advantages of which are obvious.  Supporting and being supported by one’s colleagues is invaluable in an environment where everyone is charged with the growth of the student population, and a failure by one teacher can have ripple effects throughout the school and throughout a child’s education.  Support inside the school, Brown posits, should be matched by support outside of the school by parents and the community from which the student population is drawn.

Brown ends his article with this pithy aphorism: “Great educators are cultivated, not anointed”, a strong message that can sometimes get lost in the current education environment which values just having teachers in the classroom, and not “great teachers”.  He further states, “since every child deserves a great teacher and only moves through school once, we need to invest now in developing more excellent teachers. They’re not available off the shelf”.  I think you’re right Dan, and that’s why I’m going to let the village raise this teacher.

Ross Cannon



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4 responses to ““What Makes a Great Teacher?”

  1. Hey Ross, a number of great points here. First, I like the idea that in order to become a great teacher one must teach, not learn to teach. I’m a firm believer in this notion and feel that it’s applicable to many things in life. For example, though I’m taking Eng 449, I’m not looking to get into teaching but looking to learn everything I can about English. What better way to learn about English than to learn about teaching it? As far as support from “the village” goes, I can see this being true in a large sense but not true of everyone. Sure, support will help foster one’s ideals and intentions, but even those who stand alone succeed; however, I hope you get all of the support you need to further your teaching career and accomplish all you set out to do.

  2. abthib

    Hey Ross… I was just about to put a post up about the same article. Interesting stuff. Great response.

  3. christina2011

    Your response to Dan Brown’s article is great. If you’re looking into getting a Masters as well as having mentorship while learning to teach, I’d recommend looking at programs like Boston Teacher Residency and UMB’s own Teach Next Year. You’re paired with a mentor teacher and learn to teach in their classroom for a year while also attaining your Masters in Education and licensure. I’m applying for these programs (either this year or next, not sure yet), and I think they try to accomplish exactly what Dan Brown is getting at. Thanks for a great first post!

  4. Ross what a great post! I think having doubts about entering any field is a common thing and, maybe, more so when it comes to becoming a teacher. I am on my second pre-practicum and next semester will move on to my practicum. I have always questioned the usefulness of the pre-practicums, because I felt that the best way to learn to teach was by actually teaching. Interestingly, you wrote “He even goes so far as to assert that ‘time to learn the ropes of the craft and to observe a range of veteran educators should be non-negotiable for incoming teachers'”. This also made me consider some of my concerns about the value of the pre-practicum versus the practicum itself. I agree with you and feel that he is definitely on to something. I think your example of an electrician drives the point home!

    Thanks again, your post was a good read!


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