21 January 2009 04:16 PM

What Makes a Good Math Teacher?

by rbavaria

With yesterday’s inauguration of Barak Obama as the 44th president of the United States, it’s a good time to wish him well, to be reminded of his stated commitment to education, and to recall some of the top education stories of 2008.  I recently (January 8, 2009) wrote about Singapore Math, one of the big education stories of last year.   Another one of the top 2008 education stories dealt with a study that concluded we still don’t really know what makes for a good math teacher.  Professional credentials?  More research is recommended.  College courses?  Not enough is known.  Professional development?  Difficult to know.  The National Mathematics Advisory Panel (February 2008) called for more research into what makes a good math teacher.


It’s good to study these issues, and we should do so with rigor and conscientiousness.  It’s important to know what makes for good math teacher preparation.  (Indeed, I’d argue it’s important to know the same thing for teachers of all subjects.)


When I supervised teachers, I visited their classrooms, talked to their students, and evaluated their effectiveness.  There were certain things I looked for regularly.  Based on my own experiences, intuition, common sense, and what I saw right in front of me, I was able to weed out plenty of “bad” teachers, support the “good”ones, and encourage behaviors that clearly resulted in student achievement. 

Here are some of the characteristics I looked for, in question form.  There’s been research into each of them, I’m sure, but it may be that we need more.  Have at it, education researchers!  In the meantime, as you study teaching as a “science,” it may be worthwhile for others of us to look at it as an “art.”

  1. Does she like kids?  Is there evidence that this teacher likes kids, enjoys being with them, cares about them?  Do the kids feel she cares about them?
  2. Does she really want to be a teacher?  This is a tough profession (See my blog of September 16 and 18, 2008), so she better be motivated by the intrinsic rewards because sometimes the extrinsic ones can be difficult to find easily.
  3. Does he have a positive attitude?  Does his teaching motivate students to do their best for him?  If you’ve read my blogs, you know I’m big on a positive attitude in the classroom and beyond.  Life is short, for heaven’s sake, enjoy it.
  4. Does he have confidence?  Does he inspire confidence?  I can think of few academic problems that can be alleviated without confidence.  Yes, other qualities are necessary, too – perseverance, practice, skill, etc. – but confidence gives each one a personal, distinctive élan.
  5. Is he sensitive to students’ presence, needs, and statements?  Does he consistently give direct, personal responses to students’ comments and questions, thereby showing that he’s listening and paying attention?  In other words, that he’s being respectful.
  6. Does she have high expectations of herself and her students?  Does she expect her students to persevere?  Sometimes learning is hard.  Persevering, practicing, rehearsing, all lead to enhanced skills.  (See my blog of December 29)
  7. Is he flexible, adaptable?  At a moment’s notice, of course, because that’s the way schools are.
  8. Does she mind not having all the answers?  If teachers were ever expected to be “all-knowing,” those days are long gone.    
  9. Is he “intentionally inviting,” in the words of William Purkey?  (See my blog of December 11, 2008.)  Is it clear she’s consciously competent, alert to her students, eager to invite learning from everyone in the room?
  10. Is she smart?  Does she love learning?  Is she ready to be a role model for lifelong learning?  College courses, teacher preparation, and experiences are important, naturally, and she needs to know her subject, but none of this is as meaningful as a love of learning.  We’ve all had the experienced genius who can’t teach.  Not much good in a classroom, was he?

These questions are appropriate for all teachers, math, English, physical education, computer technology, or cosmetology.  Let’s continue to research scientifically to find out what’s the best path to teacher preparation, but let’s never forget the art we expect our teachers to have, either.  Data’s good.  Soul is better.


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