Five Habits of Highly Effective Teachers

A role for administrators: Articulating the mind-set and practices of instructional performers by NEIL H. BRIGHT

With almost pinpoint accuracy, school administrators can predict in July which teachers by Christmas will have the most parent complaints, the most student disciplinary problems and the lowest standardized test scores. Before pupil rosters are even finalized, how can there be such certainty?

It’s simple. The main variable in classroom performance is not students. It’s not parents. It’s not the principal or the board of education. It is the teacher.

Numerous research studies confirm that the most important factor contributing to student success is the effectiveness of instruction. And though school quality is largely determined by teacher quality, that single factor is surprisingly difficult to improve. The well-chronicled and often-exaggerated reasons for this include veteran teachers resisting change, younger instructors lacking experience and improvement undermined in both groups by tenure’s protection.


However, another obstacle may hinder instructional growth with more certainty: Many educators view teaching as an art, in which best practices are elusive, hard to quantify and difficult to express.


Feature_Bright1Neil Bright (right) with his son Zac at an event marking his retirement from assistant superintendent of Tri-Valley Central School District in Grahamsville, N.Y., in 2004. Photo courtesy of Tri-Valley CSD

This is unfortunate. What the very best teachers do to produce the best results from students is not some unknowable mystery. Because it is unreasonable to expect excellence unless teachers know what excellence looks like, school leaders should identify, articulate and disseminate the habits of top-performing teachers.

Habit No. 1: Taking a wider view of student success. Outstanding teachers know the purpose of school isn’t solely students’ academic performance but also to do well in life. This mind-set changes everything. When teachers acknowledge this without question, some common classroom practices become frivolous while others become instructional absolutes.

A practical vision of schooling makes it difficult to justify students mindlessly learning irrelevant facts, thoughtlessly completing word searches or robotically memorizing material in a textbook when such activities have little to do with real-world challenges.

Linking curriculum and instruction to postgraduation demands puts the lie to educators who claim there’s “no time” for creative writing, research, oral presentations or persuasive essays as well as other authentic but labor-intensive activities. The invented reason for teachers not assigning real-world activities is a lack of time, when the reality may be a fear of change and loss of control. Mediocre educators deliver lessons less focused on student futures than on their own more comfortable pasts.

The easiest way to view curriculum is as a series of filters. The first such filter is state-mandated curricula, the second is reality and the third is whether the activity or assignment is beneficial to kids. Whatever concept, fact or activity that cannot pass through those filters should not be taught.

The first filter is necessary because the hiring or firing of teachers, the degree of state oversight and the passage or defeat of school budgets all are linked to student results on tests tied to that curriculum. The second filter, a shorthand for the purpose of school, is essential because educators have a moral imperative to prepare pupils for success after graduation. And the third focuses curricular decisions on how teachers view their professional lives. If the purpose of school is to prepare children for their futures, isn’t the “good for kids” rule for teachers intended to bring about that result?

Habit No. 2: Recognizing instruction as a performance.At some level, teaching is a sales job. Accordingly, how lessons are “sold” is as important as the product itself. It doesn’t really matter how hard teachers work, how many degrees they hold or even the quality of their pedagogical vision. If instructional delivery is boring, students spoiled by their sensory-overloaded world will unlikely make intellectual “purchases” of the lesson’s intrinsic value.

Because students are unlikely to learn if not engaged, superior teachers employ several strategies to improve instructional delivery. Among the most obvious of these approaches is to “know one’s lines.” As R.W. Keiper and H.M. Evans put it in “‘Act Well Your Part’: Teachers and the Performing Arts” in The Clearing House in fall 1994: “The master teacher will prepare for class much as the actor rehearses the lines and the character of his or her role.”

As in any performance, when a player is unsure of the script, there is less attention to eye contact, pacing, volume and body language. Uncertainty often translates into cold, “paint-by-the-number” presentations. And as any self-conscious teacher knows, when content knowledge is shaky, students become disinterested or disruptive.

Another performance strategy used by effective teachers is continuous movement throughout each lesson. Nonstop motion is important because it not only stimulates student focus but also contributes to classroom control. Students raised in a world of television, computers and video games are visually oriented, and following a “moving target” can’t help but raise attention levels.

Moreover, both research and anecdotal experience support the positive effect of “proximity control,” a classroom management tool described by R.T. Tauber and his co-authors in “The Teacher as Actor: Entertaining to Educate” in the March 1993 NASSP Bulletin. Disciplinary issues are directly proportional to instructor distance from students. Teachers planted behind desks or mistaken for front-of-room statues are asking for problems.

Habit No. 3: Internalizing personal accountability. The very best teachers do far more than perform. The most effective educators also internalize lofty performance standards for themselves. Master teachers focus on what they can always control — their own actions. Highly efficacious instructors feel personally responsible for student learning, and their mantra of “If they fail, I fail” is simple yet powerful. Whatever the challenge, both students and teachers will more likely persevere if they feel an increased sense of personal responsibility and control.

In some faculty rooms, a sense of personal culpability is too rarely expressed. More common is the excuse du jour, which attributes student failures to previous teachers, too many “bad apples,” too little parental support, or pupil inattention on Monday, Friday, before lunch, after lunch or right before or after a vacation period.

Predictably, teachers with low efficacy feel less responsible for student achievement. They rationalize inadequacy by focusing on personal efforts rather than on student results. Quick to deflect accountability, they seek to obfuscate poor student outcomes with unending claims recounting what they did and how hard they worked doing it. While effort is necessary for success in any endeavor, it may not be enough. What matters most are results.

Habit No. 4: Understanding student motivation. What separates pedestrian educators from excellence is packaging the above practices with an understanding of student motivation. The fact is that most students are motivated to learn — especially when it comes to reciting sports statistics, recalling song lyrics or vanquishing foes in video games. Yet they may be disinterested in learning what instructors are trying to teach them. Excellent teachers use instructional strategies that overcome such lethargy by focusing on learning’s essential motivating factors of doability and importance.

To foster learning, tasks must be both doable and important. If either factor is absent, little or no effort will be made, no matter how much of the other variable is present, according to Jere Brophy, writing in Educational Leadership in October 1987. The reason is simple. If tasks are doable but perceived as unimportant, few people will expend energy on such “trivial” pursuits. And if assignments are important but not seen as doable, most people will give up rather than struggle with “impossible” undertakings.

At the least, instructional strategies increasing doability for performance tasks, such as research projects and oral presentations, should include rubrics detailing evaluation criteria, exemplars of what excellence looks like and sequential recipes for achieving quality work. However, for concepts, terms and vocabulary, it is essential to create a consistent and cumulative review schedule enabling students to self-regulate their study and recall. Well understood by master teachers, this often-overlooked instructional approach of distributed practice is the “one indispensable key to effective learning,” according to F. Dempster, author of “Exposing Our Students to Less Should Help Them Learn More” in the February 1993 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.

The common instructional approach of one-time cramming for unit tests and final exams results in learning that’s neither meaningful nor enduring. The fact is not even serious students really learn that way. For durable learning to occur, students must “overlearn” material by recalling it on a regular, predictable and cumulative basis. By doing so, students internalize what they have been taught and begin to apply what they know. Another purely ethical reason to create a distributed practice schedule is this: If something is important enough to teach, isn’t it also important enough for students to actually use in their lives?

The second essential element promoting student motivation is importance. Accordingly, the most effective teachers are able to convince pupils that what they are being asked to learn is worth knowing. And the easiest way for teachers to convey this message is to obey the WIFM rule (“What’s in It For Me?”) of instructional choice. That is, if students become convinced the assignment of real-world products and performances will benefit their lives, their importance will be obvious.

Habit No. 5: Continuing focus on instructional improvement.The best teachers have an insatiable appetite both for good student results and for their own learning. This is so because exceptional educators realize the more they learn, the more they recognize their own ignorance. As such, a willingness to continually challenge past practices, a fearlessness to try new approaches and an unyielding drive to do what is right for kids are all signature attributes of this habit.

Whereas the best educators attend in-service presentations hoping to pick up even one idea leading to improved pedagogy, weak instructors view staff development much as disruptive students view substitute teachers. With a smug “You can’t teach me anything” mind-set, these inert educators attend conferences doing crossword puzzles, reading the screens of their handhelds or grading papers.

Schools would be transformed if all educators accepted full responsibility for instructional results, if new approaches were considered with an open mind and if decisions were based on their benefit to kids rather than on avoiding difficulty for themselves. Too many working in a profession dedicated to improving the world for future generations remain in an underperforming past. Continuing to do what they have always done, they ensure the poor results they have always gotten.

While there can be honest debate about the essential habits of elite teachers, we can be certain the most important factor affecting student achievement, the quality of instruction, is completely within our control. It is possible to educate all children well. The only question is whether teachers and administrators have the determination to do it.

Neil Bright is a staff developer and supervisor of student teachers at the State University of New York, New Paltz. E-mail: zacneil2@hughes.net