3 Things to Look for in a Teacher

Teachers oftentimes spend more time with children each week than their own parents do. That makes your child’s teacher a very significant influence. I’ve written before about the importance of hand-picking your child’s teacher, but what are the qualities you should look for in a good teacher? I’ll give you a hint: the one your child wants because he is “the funnest” probably isn’t the one.

We could make a list a mile long itemizing the qualities of a good teacher, but I have selected what I consider to be the most important traits an effective teacher must possess in order to give your child the most productive academic guidance. Here’s my top three:

1. Classroom Management

This is simple: If your child’s teacher is unable to maintain order in the classroom, her teaching cannot be effective. A good classroom manager keeps the students engaged in their work, has a class who is responsive to her directions, and gets students to complete transitions (like putting away the the math work and moving to reading centers) quickly and efficiently.

  • See it for yourself: The best place to observe a good classroom manager is in the first half hour of class. How do students enter the classroom? How long does it take them to be seated? Do they have a routine that gets them immediately engaged in some sort of learning or review activity? 5 minutes of chaos and asking students to stop talking and take their seats is a red flag. Also pay attention to how many students are engaged in the work throughout the lesson. If kids are playing with their light-up troll eraser tops all class long, you can bet they aren’t learning.

2. A Love of Fundamentals

There is a Bible story about a wise man and a foolish man. The foolish man built a house on sandy ground and his house was swept away by a storm because his foundation was weak. The wise man built his house on a strong foundation. I don’t care what the fad-of-the-day is in education, if your child’s teacher isn’t focussed on getting students to master the basic fundamentals in all subjects, she is building your child’s education on a very questionable foundation.

  • See it for yourself (part 1): When you talk to the teacher, ask what her methods are for teaching basic, fundamental skills in various areas. If she replies by saying that she doesn’t believe in rote memorization or talks about how “kill and drill” is boring to kids, that’s a red flag. The fact is that basics must be memorized, whether it’s entertaining or not. Games, songs, and fun activities are great for reinforcing learning, but if your child isn’t expected to do some good old-fashioned drill practice, the fundamentals will suffer.

    Just think how you’d feel if you went in for a hip replacement surgery, and as the anesthesia was taking effect, you heard the doctor say, “Let’s see…’the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone…'”. Doesn’t inspire much confidence, does it?

  • See it for yourself (part 2): Take a look at the scores that the teacher’s past students got on the state standardized tests (last two years, if available). This may require some digging on your part, but the information should be public record. Regardless of what some teachers say, test scores are a good indicator of subject knowledge. Remember the argument against memorization? Students who aren’t solid on their fundamentals struggle with these tests, and the scores are mostly a reflection of that.

    In general, teachers who oppose what they call “drill and kill” also tend to use phrases like “I don’t believe it’s right to put kids in a box like tests do.” or “There’s more to learning than being a good test taker”. Remember my doctor analogy above? Would you go to a surgeon who says, “I don’t put much weight on my poor MCAT scores. That test is just a way for the medical community to put me in a box.”

3. Respected by Parents and Teachers Alike

Notice I used the word “respected”, not “loved”. An effective teacher would ideally be both loved and respected, but if you have to choose one over the other, choose the teacher who has gained the respect of others. Some of the sweetest, most loved teachers I’ve known have tearfully sent kids off at the end of the school year who were completely underprepared for the next grade. Love is based on personality, respect is based on results.

  • See it for yourself: Ask around. Other parents love to talk about their kids’ past teachers. Be sure you trust the judgment of the person you’re talking to, though. Every teacher has flaws, so you will need to be able to see the forest for it’s trees if you want to make a good decision. In general, when a parent describes a teacher as one who “really made my daughter work hard,” that’s good. In our age of feelings and fabricated self-esteem we tend to think that discomfort for our child is a bad thing. Find someone who pushes. Someone like Hardnose Mrs. Hatcher, the teacher from this old McDonald’s commercial I remember from my childhood:

I don’t want you to have an anxiety-free life. I know that sounds odd, but the fact is that reasonable levels of stress can be powerful forces that make us push past our comfort zones and open up new possibilities for us. Now, I promise not to make your life stressful on purpose, but I want you to grow up to be the sort of man who is not afraid of adversity. Some of my most effective teachers have been effective because they pushed. May you have many in your life that push you.