January 2013 Volume 10

What Makes a Teacher Effective?

Dr. Glen Laman
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One of the best teachers I had at KC was former deputy headmaster, the late Mr. James Crick.  He taught us Latin in the 5th form.  Most students at KC at that time had encountered Mr. Crick in another capacity, as the resident disciplinarian for the lower school, but never as an actual teacher. He was a larger than life figure on campus at that time—there were even poems written about him.

For some reason, my form was without a Latin teacher that year and Crick was given the mission to save the day and prepare us for the GCE exams. 

How was Mr. Crick different from other teachers?  For starters, he told us why studying Latin was important. According to him, we would understand the English language better than other mere mortals who had not studied Latin. Then he explained that the study of Latin would help us develop a certain discipline that would equip us to study any other subject.

He told the story of a former student of his, who after conquering Latin, and without having studied any of the usual prerequisites of Biology, Physics and Chemistry, entered the university to study medicine and was successful. After that, we all viewed Latin in a different light..

Mr. Crick assured us that we would all pass the Cambridge exams. “If you boys, will only, follow, my, plan, I can guarantee, you will be, a success,” he exhorted in his poetic and lyrical Bajan oratory--A favorite pastime of the class was to mock his rhythmic but commanding speech. He outlined his plan which included: writing down new words, their translation and other key attributes; a disciplined approach to exercises and translating passages from Julius Casear’s Gallic War and Homer’s Iliad; and coming to class prepared to contribute.

As I recall, virtually the whole class passed the exam that year. Mr. Crick was our hero. Previously, most boys were probably scared of him due to his reputation as a disciplinarian. Plus, he was an imposing figure of a man. As a teacher however, he gave advice about life and told us to take vitamins or a tonic to help cope with the stress of studying. As the exam date drew closer, he gave us extra classes on Saturdays at the Melbourne campus after which he would give us a football and let us play for about an hour to “let off steam.”

There were other great teachers at KC during my time, including Mr. MacDonald (mathematics), Mr. Earle (chemistry), Miss Soares (English) and others whose names I have long forgotten.  Nor you ye proud impute to these the fault if memory o’er their names no trophies raise---Such is the nature of life that many labor in obscurity while others enjoy the spotlight.

But there were also some teachers that were not very effective and as students we always knew who they were. But nobody ever asked us. 

Some studies show that the single most important factor determining the quality of the education a child receives is the quality of his or her teacher.

But what makes teachers effective? I know one ingredient is hard work. The other is the ability to connect with the student and let them know that you see them as a person who is capable. Of course, it’s more complicated than that and probably determined by many other variables.

Billionaire Bill Gates has been trying to figure out how to improve teacher effectiveness. He has funded a study to determine exactly what skills make a teacher great. “It was mind-blowing how little it had been studied,” Gates told a NY Times writer. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a pilot program to help teachers become more effective using data from the study. It includes peer and principal reviews of teachers and plans to reward teachers based on performance rather than seniority.

One factor that’s often overlooked is that learning also requires effort on the part of the student. If students don't show up ready to learn because of wrong attitudes, problems at home or other issues, a teacher can only do so much. In some of my classes at KC there were always students who were disruptive and made little attempt to heed the teacher’s words.

Let’s hope Bill Gates and others can figure out the teaching effectiveness matter soon. But someone should also be looking at things from the student effectiveness end of things. How do we ensure also that students show up ready to learn?

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