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A talk can reveal teacher’s qualities

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on February 23, 2012)

With all the attention being given to Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system, parents may wonder how they can determine for themselves whether their child’s teacher is a good one.

My colleague, Marcy Singer-Gabella, associate chair of Peabody College’s Department of Teaching and Learning, says “Good teachers pay close attention to their students’ skills, knowledge, interests, and ideas and use them to drive learning toward important goals. This isn’t easy work – there are a lot of moving parts.”

To build on students’ ideas, for example, teachers must create safe spaces for ideas to be shared.  This requires that a teacher establish respectful relationships with and among the students in her or his class. If the classroom is chaotic, the conversation interruptive or impolite, of if there isn’t as much listening going on as there is talking, then relationships need improving.

To drive learning forward, teachers should make their goals clear, and these goals should be centered on important ideas, questions and skills. Parents should know the goals, be able to tell that classroom activities are aligned with them, and that students are being assessed on the content that matters.

Parents also should be able to tell whether a teacher knows their child well. When you talk with the teacher, does the teacher’s picture of your child agree with yours? Does his or her instruction build on your student’s experience, interests, and skills? If not, it’s important to let the teacher know — parents can help even great teachers get better by communicating with them.

In creating learning experiences, does your child’s teacher combine high challenge with strong supports?  Setting challenging goals is one hallmark of a good teacher, but there must be supports to reach those goals.

Does the teacher use multiple kinds of evidence to assess your child’s work? Tests, quizzes, homework, projects, writing and presentations all provide useful measures, and not every child is good at all of them. A variety of assessments will paint a truer picture of your child’s learning and allow the teacher to adjust their instruction accordingly.

The teacher also needs to share this feedback in clear, specific ways to help you and your child understand what the child has done well and how they can improve. If communication is clear, your child should be able to assess their own performance and know how to keep learning.

Finally, find out if your child’s teacher is also a good learner. Not only should teachers have a clear command of the content they teach, but as my colleague Marcy says, “Good teachers keep learning – from and with their students, about the subject matter they teach, and about the world.”

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education will appear every other Thursday in the The Tennessean Local section.