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How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Provide High-Quality Instruction

by Bill Honig

Good teachers combine several qualities that are not usually found in the same individual. They love and respect children, but many who enter the profession thinking that caring is enough don’t last. Competent teachers are knowledgeable and passionate about the subjects they teach, but as new teachers quickly discover, they cannot survive on knowledge and passion alone. Capable teachers perceive the promise in every child and have the sturdy resolve to insist that all students reach their potential. Every day in classrooms across the country, good teachers are changing students’ lives—inspiring them to become engaged, work hard, and raise their sights.
In addition, practitioners need enough strength of character and technique to ensure an orderly, friendly, and productive classroom. Teachers need to be willing to continuously improve their practice by building their content and pedagogical knowledge. They must also be open to exploring how to use effective materials and how to work productively with their colleagues to that end. Proficient teachers accomplish these goals in a variety of ways, depending on their unique personalities and approaches, but most successful practitioners have mastered the entire range of skills.

A Personal Perspective

Teaching is not a trivial pursuit. Most people who haven’t taught fail to appreciate how difficult it is to teach. Teachers need to possess a deep knowledge of the subjects they teach and know how students best learn those subjects. They need to recognize when a student is having difficulty and what to do about it. Teachers need to create an engaging, motivating classroom and establish positive relationships with their students. They have to make split-second decisions constantly. At the beginning of every school year, they must create a functioning class from a variety of distinct individuals. Even if successful, a class of 20–30 youngsters is a potential emotional powder keg, capable of exploding at any time without the teacher’s constant vigilance. Most non-teachers have trouble controlling and engaging even three children at a time. Adding to the challenge is the fact that students continually make emotional demands. Often there are a host of time-consuming and often arbitrary demands and interruptions by administrators. The specifics of the craft of teaching are discussed in detail in the rest of this piece.

Of all the positions I have held in my life—attorney, district and state superintendent, president of a teaching company, and consultant—the experience of being a fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade classroom teacher was the most exhausting. Many outspoken critics of teachers and schools would greatly benefit from trying to teach a class for a whole day. Similar comments are shared in “What Really Makes Teaching Hard.” Ray Bacchetti taught fourth grade for one year in Palo Alto before he became a vice president at Stanford University and a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation. He described teaching as “the most challenging job I ever had,” “a daily miracle,” and the “most exciting thing in the world.” I would second Ray’s comments.

To the list of attributes I previously mentioned, I would add another important quality of a good teacher—a basic sense of fairness. Children acutely perceive injustice. We all have our stories of being treated unfairly. One that stands out for me occurred in eighth-grade PE class. I was an outfielder in a baseball game, a ball was hit over the fence, and it was my responsibility to retrieve it. It happened that some girls were standing across the street, and two teammates, spying the girls, also rushed to recover the ball. We all were punished, and no adult heeded my plea that it was legitimate for me to chase the ball. As a teacher, I always tried to determine what really happened and to act accordingly. It used to frost me when one child would try to steal a ball from another who would resist, and the teacher on duty would punish them both for fighting at recess.

Some prospective teachers possess a natural presence and others need to learn their craft. Usually the learning curve is sharp for the first three years, but almost all effective teachers eventually convey a confident, professional demeanor. Students sense that these pros know their field and believe in it, care about them, and expect them to learn.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon I witnessed did not occur in a public school, but in a traffic school for adults some 50 years ago. At that time, anti-authority attitudes were endemic. I arrived early, with a book I planned to read during the class. The traffic violators who trickled in were a tough bunch—bikers, hippies, stoners, ex-cons, military types, bored housewives, and gym rats. No one wanted to be there, and the atmosphere was tense. I thought to myself, “These ‘students’ are going to demolish the person they send to teach us.” At precisely the scheduled hour, a diminutive woman entered, strode purposefully to the podium, and began. I waited for the fireworks.

Her first action was to point to me, saying: “Put that book away. This class is serious, and I need everybody’s full attention.” I noticed that the class immediately became still and attentive. From that point on, not one person caused any trouble. Docile and compliant, we all did what she requested. We remained engaged for the entire session. I think it was her businesslike manner, her evident belief in the importance of what she was doing, and her confidence that won the class over. For most teachers, it takes a few years to develop that type of demeanor.

Many Factors Influence the Quality of Instruction

Teaching is a complex activity requiring skills on many fronts, and teaching to help students achieve the Common Core State Standards is even more challenging. There are no simple silver bullets; success depends on developing a long-range, comprehensive, strategic effort. Current research shows that several in-school dimensions determine student learning and teacher effectiveness. A well-functioning classroom is proficient in each area since shortcomings in any one element can sabotage classroom learning. Thus, teachers and schools must examine the totality of what influences learning, and teachers must master them all to be proficient. Struggling teachers may not produce results owing to a weak curriculum, lax classroom management, rigidly passive instruction, or inefficient classroom organization. Successful teachers weave these facets into an effective system in their own unique way, reflecting their talents and personality.

In Student and Teacher Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform, Lavigne and Good devote an entire chapter to a detailed review of teacher effectiveness research—“How Teachers Influence Student Learning.” On page 78, they list 13 categories of the most important components:

Four pertain to curriculum:

  • Adequate subject matter knowledge;
  • Coherent curriculum and sequence;
  • Opportunity to learn; and
  • Balanced procedural and conceptual knowledge

Seven relate to instruction:

  • Appropriate expectations and grouping;
  • Effective use of time;
  • Active teaching;
  • Teacher clarity and enthusiasm;
  • Instructional and curricular pace;
  • Teaching to mastery; and
  • Effective review and feedback

Two relate to classroom management:

  • Proactive management; and
  • Supportive and fair classrooms

I would add to this list the ability to motivate and engage all students and build positive human relationships with them.

What Is Effective Teaching?

Renowned teacher-educator Deborah Loewenberg Ball is dean of education at the University of Michigan. She has led a research group that delineated 19 high-leverage teacher practices. These are practices that every teacher should eventually master or at least become more and more adept in. Ball reinforces the point that good teaching means knowing content, how best to teach it, and what to do when students have difficulty in learning.

The following list of high-leverage practices appears on University of Michigan’s TeachingWorks website, a group that creates performance assessments of practice based on Ball’s high-leverage practices. The list is quite detailed, and readers may want to skim. But proficient teachers do not have the luxury of neglecting any of these elements of skillful teaching. Notice that the breadth of these 19 high-leverage practices goes far beyond what most evaluation schemes examine.

TeachingWorks High-Leverage Practices

  1. Leading a group discussion
  2. Explaining and modeling content, practices, and strategies
  3. Eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking
  4. Diagnosing particular common patterns of student thinking and development in a subject-matter domain
  5. Implementing norms and routines for classroom discourse and work
  6. Coordinating and adjusting instruction during a lesson
  7. Specifying and reinforcing productive student behavior
  8. Implementing organizational routines
  9. Setting up and managing small group work
  10. Building respectful relationships with students
  11. Talking about a student with parents or other caregivers
  12. Learning about students’ cultural, religious, family, intellectual, and personal experiences and resources for use in instruction
  13. Setting long- and short-term learning goals for students
  14. Designing single lessons and sequences of lessons
  15. Checking student understanding during and at the conclusion of lessons
  16. Selecting and designing formal assessments of student learning
  17. Interpreting the results of student work, including routine assignments, quizzes, tests, projects, and standardized assessments
  18. Providing oral and written feedback to students
  19. Analyzing instruction for the purpose of improving it

I would add that teachers also need to know how to encourage student self-assessment.

For a good summary of Ball’s work on core teaching competencies, see “What Core Skills Do Teachers Need to Be Effective?” California has embodied these ideas in its document California Standards for the Teaching Profession. See also the articles in the Deeper Learning research series published by Jobs for the Future. For a perceptive comment on the need for focused professional development, see “It’s Time to Restructure Teacher Professional Development” by Mike Schmoker.

Taking all the anecdotal evidence and research findings into account, it is apparent that teaching is extremely complex. Becoming a skilled teacher proficient in each of the essential skills requires years of individual work and practice, assistance from colleagues, and support from administrators. That effort should be a major driver of all school improvement endeavors.

Reference Notes

A Personal Perspective
Tschwertley, T. D. (2015, Mar 21). What Really Makes Teaching Hard.

Many Factors Influence the Quality of Instruction
Hansel, L. (2015, Jul 9). Seeking Confirmation.

Lavigne A. L., & Good, T. L. (2014). Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform. New York: Routledge.

What Is Effective Teaching?
TeachingWorks. High-Leverage Practices. University of Michigan.

Zubrzycki, J. (2015, Nov 9). Students ‘Self-Assess’ Their Way to Learning. Education Week.

Hanford, E. (2015, Oct 20). What Core Skills Do Teachers Need to Be Effective?

Commission on Teacher Credentialing. (2009). California Standards for the Teaching Profession.

Jobs for the Future. (2016). Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series.

Schmoker, M. (2015, Oct 20). It’s Time to Restructure Teacher Professional Development. Education Week.

2 thoughts on “How Top Performers Build-and-Support: Provide High-Quality Instruction

    1. BillHonig Post author

      John Hattie reports that collective teacher efficacy is the most effective policy of the hundreds he analyzed showing a 1.6 SD gain (a huge amount) more than 16 time the effect of charter schools and other current “reform” nostrums. See the July posts for cites.


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