Only The Best: Hiring Outstanding Teachers

A great curriculum in the hands of a mediocre teacher—even one with a credential—is nothing more than a mediocre curriculum

Leadership,  Nov-Dec, 2005  by Pete Pillsbury (While this was written 8 years ago, it is still relevant in today’s search for hiring outstanding educators)

Most administrators would agree that hiring a teacher is the most important decision they make. This decision has a greater affect on children than any other administrative decision. What a teacher believes and does as a teacher will either open or close doors to learning for students.We are all well aware that teacher quality and effectiveness are without question the primary Factors in the continuous growth and achievement of children. My work over the years as a teacher, administrator, superintendent and consultant/trainer has continuously underscored the positive impact a highly talented teacher makes in the growth and development of students and on how clear, when asked, we are on what constitutes a highly effective teacher.

Six years ago I started working as a consultant and trainer with school districts that have put teacher quality at the core of their improvement efforts. These districts have made a systematic effort to hire teachers with qualities that lead to positive learning environments for children.

It quickly became apparent to me that human resources departments and people coordinating the selection of teachers need the financial resources and the tools to select only the very best teachers–those who will maximize student learning and development. All too often district budgets are heavy in the curricular areas, leaving human resources struggling with a minuscule budget and lacking the most effective selection tools.

It is a cart before the horse issue. It is the teacher who pulls the cart, and those with talent pull it magnificently; those without talent pull little. Or, put another way, a great curriculum in the hands of a poor or mediocre teacher is nothing more than a poor or mediocre curriculum. A great curriculum in the hands of a skilled and effective teacher is a highly effective curriculum. In fact, great teachers are even able to get kids motivated and growing without a fancy curriculum. It is clear that our priority must be to focus on the quality of the teachers we hire, and we need to invest in this process.

The importance and complexity of teacher quality is currently being too narrowly represented by our federal education officials and the No Child Left Behind legislation. They appear to be focused on a singular idea that teacher quality is measured by a credential. But credentialed teachers range from poor to great, since their teaching quality is not represented by a credential but in their beliefs and behaviors as facilitators of children’s learning.

I believe we need a broader brush to paint a more complete picture of teacher effectiveness, which will broaden and intensify the educational dialogue about teacher quality. For the past five years in my workshops I have been engaging in this dialogue with educators and parents all over our country. As I have listened to people, I have found common threads in their understanding about what outstanding teachers believe about children and about teaching, and how outstanding teachers behave in the classroom. I will share three of these common threads:

1. Purpose

When I facilitate in my workshops discussion about the qualities of excellent teachers, participants always seem to focus on the reasons why these teachers have chosen to teach–in other words, their purpose. In describing the purpose and motivation of great teachers. I hear over and over again that these great teachers:

* Have a deep sense of calling to the profession.

* Have a passion for children and a desire to help children learn and grow.

* Want to be with children and value the uniqueness of each child.

* Help students discover strengths and abilities as a learner.

* Are positive and help students think positively about themselves and others.

* Believe that all students have a desire to learn and grow and are accountable for their growth.

People point out that their best teachers always made learning joyous and helped them achieve things that they did not know they were capable of. They knew that their teacher loved working with them and helping them learn.

2. Relationships

During my discussions with people in workshops, another issue emerges about great teachers that may be the most important of all. This is the area of relationships. It doesn’t take much study of learning to discover that what most opens the door to learning is the relationship the student has with the teacher. When it comes to relationships, participants describe great teachers as:

* Being supportive and very caring in a personal way.

* Communicating with children in intense personal ways.

* Listening to children.

* Acting warm and friendly toward children.

* Helping children self-affirm.

* Showing empathy toward students.

Kids want to learn from these teachers because they believe that they care about them and respect them. I have heard from people time and time again in describing a great teacher they had, “The teacher believed in me and helped me believe in myself,” and “The teacher cared about me.” These teachers are always behaving in ways that affirm for the students how much the teacher values them as unique individuals.

3. Approaches to teaching

Another area that always comes up when describing teaching excellence is approaches to teaching. Great teachers are seen as:

* Having high expectations and being demanding.

* Making learning interesting by connecting it to things the learner has interest in and tapping into intrinsic motivators.

* Getting the learner actively engaged in learning.

* Promoting individual and critical thinking.

* Structuring lessons in order to maximize learning for all students.

* Being personally accountable for student achievement.

* Looking for multiple ways to solve issues and problems as they arise.

So many times I’ve heard from participants engaged in discussions about effective teachers, “They made learning fun.” They describe great teachers as, “the ones who got me to want to learn and realize that I could do it…. They motivated with their own personal enthusiasm for the subject matter, but most of all they tapped into my interests, got me involved and motivated me from within myself.”

In summary, the most effective way to improve schools is through focusing on teacher quality. First, it is critical that we identify these qualities. Second, we must assure that we have teachers in classrooms who exemplify these qualities. In doing so, we can make continuous academic and personal growth of each student the norm. To have a major focus in any area other than teacher quality and selection is to miss the power behind the most important decision an educational leader makes–the hiring of a teacher.

This calls for more dialogue and greater clarity on the standards of excellence in highly effective teachers. With greater clarity on teacher effectiveness and the use of state-of-the-art selection tools, educational leaders will make giant strides in hiring and retaining only those who meet the standards outlined above. The results will be obvious in the students!