9 What Makes an Effective Teacher?

Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark

Teacher writing on the board with dry erase marker
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Here’s a question:  Are you teaching if students are not learning?  Professionals have debated this idea for generations. A common definition of an effective teacher is one who impacts student learning.

If educators are tasked with helping children learn, it is important to define learning. Our brain was designed to question, explore and learn. We are born with billions of neurons just waiting to be connected.  Each experience we have, throughout our lifetime, creates connections or pathways between the neurons.   Learning begins at birth and continues throughout a lifetime.

In order for our brains to function effectively, it needs to have the following:  exercise, sleep, oxygen, hydration (water), and food.  We can have the best teacher in the world, but if the brain lacks any of these, the brain will not function at full capacity.  Think about students who do not receive enough of one or more of these.  They are at a disadvantage from the second they step into the classroom; before instruction even begins. There are many things that educators can do in schools to provide for some of these basic needs, but more importantly, it is important for educators to know their students well to determine a missing piece.

There are three definitions of learning that are important to know as you define effectiveness as a teacher.

  1. Learning is a change in the neuron patterns of the brain.
  2. Learning is the ability to use the information after a long period of disuse.
  3. Learning is the ability to use the information to problem solve, and/or use it in a different manner or circumstance from which it was learned.

Terry Doyle from Ferris State University says that “The one who does the work is the one who does the learning.”  Students have to put work and effort into learning the material that is presented to them.  It doesn’t just flow into the brain and stay.  The type of work and the amount of effort will vary among our students.  They will have to work harder in some areas than others; you probably already know that based on your own learning experiences.  As teachers, we have to help students discover what types of strategies will work for them.

Objectives and Key Terms

In this chapter, readers will…

  • Define learning as it relates to effectiveness as an educator
  • Identify the four domains of Danielson’s Frameworks for Teaching and how they relate to teacher effectiveness
  • Describe what it meant by the teacher as a “reflective decision maker”

Key terms in the chapter are…

  • Reflective teaching
  • Scaffolding
  • Zone of Proximal Development
  • Classroom management
  • Engagement

What do you think?

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What words would you use to describe an effective teacher?

An Effective teacher is__________________.

An Effective Educator Understands Learning Theories

As the brain takes in information, it will look for patterns, look for similarities and differences, look for relationships and connect the new information to what is already known.  All of these will create new brain connections and can result in learning.  The information goes into the short term memory, but in order for learning to take place it has to make the transfer to long term memory.  Here is how the cycle works:

The teacher shares knowledge the students need to learn.

The student’s short term memory is activated and records information that is important.

Neurons fire creating networks that represent the new information

If the student does not use the information, or only uses it a few times, the neuron-networks that represent that new information will break apart and be lost.

If the information is used a great deal (reviewed, applied and practices), the neuron networks form strong connections and become part of long term memory and then…

LEARNING HAS TAKEN PLACE!

You can see that the student has to be actively involved in order for learning to take place.  Our responsibility is to help them develop strategies for making this transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory.

A very large factor in learning is repetition.  Students have to interact with the information over and over. Many of you do not sing your ABCs every day, but if you were asked to, you probably could. The reason is that you really did learn it several years ago.  The information made the transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory.  Just reading an assignment, or listening to a lecture, is not enough to learn the information.  We have to spend time interacting with the material and in a variety of ways.

First off, we have to be certain the information we are trying to learn is accurate.  Neurons in the brain fire for misinformation as well as accurate information.  If you don’t understand an idea, or have questions, be sure to ask them.  Do not assume.  If you do not ask, you run the risk of studying information that is not correct or of doing something incorrectly.  Always be sure the information you are studying is accurate, and that your students understand this idea as well.

Second, students need to take the time to reflect.  Ask how the new information connects to what you already know.  Search your experiences and see if there is one that connects to this idea.  You can use it to help assimilate the new information.  Look back over how this information was presented to you and see if there are any connections there that will help you remember.  Ponder how you might use this new information.  Some students find keeping a reflective journal an effective strategy for them to use when processing new information.  A journal is a tool that will allow them to “think about” and reflect on the information.  Keep in mind, this may not be effective for everyone.

Another tool for transferring information from the short-term memory to the long-term memory is review.  Our review has to begin immediately.  We have to look the information over and create strategies for studying.  These will vary greatly among our students.  We have to help them discover what learning tools work for them.  For example, let’s look at learning spelling words.  We have all had the list of spelling words we needed to learn.  We all had our own way of doing it, but most of us just kept spelling the words over and over.  Again, this doesn’t work for everyone.  Others find flashcards helpful or drawing graphs and diagrams, writing songs or poems with the concepts to be learned or creating games to play with study buddies.  Some students will highlight in their textbooks and write notes in the margins.  The bottom line is that students have to find a way to review the information that works for them.  In some cases, we have to teach our students how to learn.

One review tool is a concept map.  You may also know this as a graphic organizer or web.  All of these terms refer to basically the same thing.  It is a visual organization of material.   As they create, they are interacting with the material again (repetition) and then they have a tool to use when they review the information.

Re-coding is a very effective tool in learning.  Re-coding involves writing the information you receive in your own words.  Taking notes is one way to re-code, as long as you are not copying word for word from a text or PowerPoint.  Keeping a learning journal is another way to re-code information.  Re-coding allows the student to put the ideas in his/her own words and based on our own experiences with the information.  This improves learning.  Don’t memorize definitions; always read the definition and then write it out in your own words.  These are the words that you will remember and understand.  It will also help to make that transfer of information from the short term memory to the long term memory.  Once again, they are interacting with the material a second or third time and we know that repetition is a major key in learning.  These are the types of strategies you can teach your students.

Research is showing that movement is an important part of learning.  The more movement we can incorporate into a classroom, the more likely our students are to stay focused.  This is especially important for younger children who have very limited attention spans, and are naturally wired to move.  Students who appear active, or never seem to be able to sit still, are often moving to help keep themselves focused.  How many of you doodle while listening to someone talk, or click a pen or tap a foot?  This type of “fidgeting”, whether you realize it or not, is helping your brain to stay focused on the task.  For students who are high in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, they need to move.   However, students are often punished in class for the very behaviors that will help them learn.  Technology has also robbed our children of opportunities to move, yet it is a necessary part of our development.

A child’s mental development is based in part on his/her early motor development.  The brain begins to wire up its ability to process information by wiring up the body’s systems of balance, coordination, vestibular, and motor development. What makes us move is also what makes us think.  As the brain and body begin to work together to process motor sequences and patterns such as rolling over, crawling, walking, and jumping, the brain creates the pathways used for processing sequences in reading and math.

Think about these things.  The basic movements we learn as children, rolling, crawling/walking, and jumping correspond with the way information travels in the brain:

Never Stop Learning words and girl with hands up, graphics for learning areas such as science, music, geography, math.
Never Stop Learning graphic CC0 from pixabay.com
  • side to side across the corpus callosum
  • back to front across the motor cortex
  • up and down from the bottom to the top of the brain

Sometimes we have to “jump-start” the brain by doing the exercises I mentioned earlier.  You can see how those simple movements can help get the brain “talking to itself.”

We can support learning by incorporating movement into our classrooms.  Exercise balls have been shown to be very effective for children who have the need to move.  The balls are used in place of a chair.  The small movement that is needed to keep balanced on the ball is enough to meet the child’s need to move.  They can also move a bit on the ball within their defined space.  Allowing children to doodle or fidget also helps. Some students even benefit from a “fidget.”  This is some object that students can “play with” while they are listening, studying, and working.  For example, a cushy ball to squeeze, or a small ball to roll around in the hand.

You also want to think about activities you can put into place that will allow students to move.  Using a velcro dartboard with math facts is one way to get students moving.  They throw the velcro dart and have to solve the problem it lands on.  Labeling a beach ball with the elements of a story and tossing the ball around.  The elements their hands land on when catching it are the elements they have to explain or give examples of.  These types of things will increase the chances that this information will be transferred to long-term memory.

An Effective Educator Understands About Mindset

There is another significant factor in learning and that is an individual’s mindset.  Carol Dweck’s research identified two types of mindsets:  a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  These mindsets influence how students view themselves as learners and influence the amount of effort they put into their studies.

Growth mindset individuals believe their brains are malleable and intelligence and abilities can be enhanced through hard work and practice. They believe only time will tell how “smart” they are.  Fixed mindset individuals see intelligence as fixed; some people are “smart” and others are not “smart.”  They believe that no amount of work or study will improve their abilities or increase their knowledge.  Both of these mindsets are reflected in the performance of students.  Let’s look at these ideas side by side.

GROWTH MINDSET FIXED MINDSET
Intelligence can be changed

See failure as something to grow from

Practice and effort will improve abilities

Risks are necessary for growth

Effort is necessary for growth and success

Individuals know they can improve

Take criticism as a way to learn and grow

Learning is paramount!

Intelligence is fixed and unchanging

Putting in effort won’t make a difference

View themselves as “not smart”

Avoid challenges

Make excuses and avoid difficulties

Believe it’s important to “look smart”

Take criticism personally

You can see how the way in which you view yourself will impact your ideas about learning and thus your practices.  It’s vital that we help students develop a growth mindset if they are going to be successful.

Let’s look at the basic principle of learning.  In order to learn, we have to take a risk and in order to take that risk, we have to feel safe both physically and emotionally.  Most of our students feel physically safe in their classrooms (there are always those exceptions), but far fewer feel emotionally safe.  They don’t participate in discussions, answer questions, or sometimes even do their work out of the fear of being wrong.   Most of these students will have a fixed mindset.  They don’t see themselves as learners and they don’t believe that any amount of work will make a difference.  They often shut down and do nothing because it is emotionally safer that way.  It is safer to do nothing than to do something and be wrong, which means they then deal with the humiliation of failure.  They have often experienced a great deal of failure in the past and they have now “shut down.” If someone does not step in and help them experience success, they are doomed.  It’s never too late to help a student develop a growth mindset, but it will take time, patience, and dedication.

Watch the following video about Mindset to learn more:

 

If we have any hope of these students into productive students who participate in discussions, complete work, and make academic progress we have to first help them experience success.  This requires a one-on-one conversation to discover the reason why these things are happening.  We then have to work to resolve the issues the student has.  They may mean we provide extra help to the student individually, alter assignments for a period of time, work with study buddies, or do whatever it will take for the student to experience just a small amount of success.  With each new success comes more confidence.  We then continue to build on that success.  We have to continue to challenge them, but keep the support systems in place so they can continue to be successful.  Over time we will be able to remove some of those supports, but in the process, they will be gaining strategies and tools they can continue to use in their academic endeavors.  They will also have gained confidence and most of them will have changed their mindset to one that more closely resembles a growth mindset.  This will make all the difference in their learning!

Learning is a complex process and we have to understand what is involved, what works for our students, the challenges they face, the emotional baggage they enter our classrooms with, as well as understand them and find ways to help them be successful.  We have to be willing to go above and beyond, change the rules and expectations now and then, and get rid of the notion of punishment, and strive to teach!

An Effective Educator Understands How to Reflect

As a teacher learns about how children learn, he/she can reflect on how he/she is doing to help children learn.  Reflective teaching is one way that an educator can systematically reflect on data (test scores, assignments, informal questions) to determine if he/she was successful.  It is important to think about all that goes into teaching a lesson so that reflection can be centered on what might be going well and what might need adjustment.

Danielson’s Framework for Teaching

Dr. Charlotte Danielson (2011) worked with others and current research to define a framework to identify a teacher’s responsibilities. Although they are not the only possible description of practice, these responsibilities seek to define what teachers should know and be able to do in the exercise of their profession.

In this framework, the complex activity of teaching is divided into 22 components clustered into the following 4 domains of teaching responsibility:

  • Domain 1: Planning and Preparation
  • Domain 2: The Classroom Environment
  • Domain 3: Instruction
  • Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

Each component defines a distinct aspect of a domain; two to five elements describe a specific feature of a component. For example, Domain 2, The Classroom Environment, contains five components. Component 2a is Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport, which consists of two elements: “Teacher interaction with students” and “Student interactions with other students.” This component applies in some manner to all settings, as do all the other components. But although teachers at all levels and in all subjects establish rapport with and convey respect for their students, they do so in different ways.

 

Danielson’s Framework for Teaching (FfT) is one way that educators in many states have adopted a common language to talk about the responsibilities in the classroom.  States such as Arkansas and Louisiana have adopted Danielson’s work in order to evaluate a teacher’s success in the classroom.

Thoughts

Think about how you describe an effective teacher.  Would these four domains capture everything you are thinking about?

 

What Makes an Effective Teacher?

In this chapter, we reflected on three things that effective educators need to understand.  They need to understand how children learn and grow, they have to learn about the impact of mindset on learning, and finally, they need to know how to reflect on their own practice.  With these practices in place, educators will be on the road to teacher expertise.

Dig Deeper

The following resources are provided when “digging deeper” into the chapter.

Danielson, C. (2011). Frameworks for Teaching.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

 

 


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Introduction to Education (BETA) by Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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