What Is An Effective Teacher?

For one of my finals, several of my colleagues and I created a podcast series called “Pedagogy of the Obsessed.” For my episode, I asked people to talk about their definition of an effective teacher. In the podcast linked below, you’ll hear from experts Doug Lemov, Daniel Katz, Jal Mehta, and Joanne Golann. You’ll also hear from my amazing colleagues Lance Huffman, Keri Randolph, and Ray Schleck.

I’ll be writing a couple of posts to accompany this as well.


Link to podcast on Anchor







This is Pedagogy of the Obsessed where we can’t stop talking about what’s happening in schools, what’s going on with education policy, what’s new in research, and how that all works inside classrooms every day. I’m Shanna Peeples, a doctoral candidate in the Education Leadership program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education where we are, as the motto says, learning to change the world. I taught secondary English for 15 years, had the honor of serving as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, and most recently worked at the district level as the coordinator for secondary ELA curriculum. We’re talking about teaching today, thanks for listening.



I want to start with a story. And it starts in the 1980s at Taco Bell.

John Martin had just became the CEO and was on his way to changing the company from a small chain of restaurants into a $2 billion global brand.

One of the most powerful things Martin did was change the layout of the restaurant. When Taco Bells first opened in the 1970s, they looked like most other restaurants. The kitchen used 70% of the space because cooking the food was the main activity. Martin’s bold insight flipped this idea on its head, using what he called a “K-minus strategy.”

K-minus stood for “kitchen minus” as in: minus the kitchen. As in: we don’t need a kitchen if we prep and cook all of the food offsite. Because of the high turnover in line cooks, prepping the food off site meant that the K-Minus Taco Bells would only need people who could follow the moves of heating and assembling the small list of menu items.

This one change allowed the company to standardize recipes, track orders, measure transactions, and hold the majority of their most popular items in premade batches. And it made them a tremendous amount of money.

I begin with this story because I’m an English teacher and I love metaphors.  For me, Taco Bell’s K-Minus strategy is a metaphor for thinking about schools and teaching. Some of the same thinking that changed what and how we eat has turned itself toward what and how we teach.

No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration’s federal education policy, was as radical a shift in policy and practice as the K Minus strategy was for Taco Bell. NCLB’s efficiencies model began taking hold in schools as federal policy mandated the collection of reams of testing data. This led to value-added measures of teacher quality. What that began to look like is rankings of individual teachers. Their rankings added up as school rankings, which had implications for communities in everything from real estate prices to economic development.

The question for us today is: What is a teacher? Is it someone who delivers a product, kind of like a burrito or a test score? Or is it someone who delivers an experience, more like a custom-order to the chef?

How you answer those questions, in my opinion, determines how you will decide if a teacher is effective or not. Taco Bell is a kind of snarky shorthand for one kind of answer: that’ the scripted curriculum that is easy to scale. But is that teaching?

This matters because we’re currently facing a growing teaching shortage. If we define an effective teacher as someone who can perform scripted moves with a narrow curriculum, then it’s easier to do what Arizona and California are doing and look to the Philippines for teachers or like South Carolina where they recruit teachers from as far away as Romania and India. It can also look like my home state of Texas where up to 200 alternative certification vendors recruit off  of highway billboards and charge $4 grand per person to certify them.

It matters how we define what an effective teacher is because ESSA, the Obama Administration’s reauthorization of the original Elementary and Secondary Act of 196, grants states more freedom in designing assessments as well as more freedom in creating their own standards of teacher certification. This creates an opportunity to hit reset on our definition of teacher.

Today, we’ll hear different perspectives on the question of what makes an effective teacher.



My first guest is Doug Lemov, the author of the best-selling book “Teach Like a Champion.” He’s also the managing director of Uncommon Schools, a network of public charter schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. We both agree that teaching is complex, difficult work. Because of this, he believes that practicing certain teaching moves, like questioning helps teachers develop confidence and focus.



Working memory is very limited and if you’re trying to remember something like I want to remember to ask open-ended questions and not yes or no questions of my students, if you’re trying to think about that, and the causes of the Civil War, and your 30 different kids at any one moment, it will be incredibly hard to execute. And the way to be able to execute that is to have practiced it before hand so it comes out in muscle memory so you can be thinking about the causes of the Civil War and where your students are at any given place. So one of the aspects of teacher training that I think my colleagues and I really believe in for that reason, is the power of practice. I also think it builds confidence, by the way, if  you’ve done something ten times before you walk in the classroom. You know that you can do it and you know how to do it and in a way that sounds authentically like you.



There is a certain amount of practiced skills that teachers have in their repertoire. Isolating the performance of master teachers and then practicing them is a cornerstone of Lemov’s argument. But can this practice create predictable outcomes in teacher performance? Some critics don’t think so. Daniel Katz is the chair of educational studies at Seton Hall University where he writes about new teacher induction and how pre-service education prepares teachers to enter schools. He is skeptical of the argument that teaching is performance.



It’s one of these big weaknesses and I honestly think one of the biggest problems that we have right now is that people with a huge amount of funding, like Bill Gates really seem to think that teaching is mostly performative. And that if you can control the nature of the performance then you will get uniformity of results on the other side of that.



Lemov however, believes that one of the ways we can identify effective teachers is based on outcomes, particularly outcomes in student learning.



Look, I think learning is a complex thing and with a complex thing I would want to measure it using multiple tools. And I think you need to use objective data to look at learning. Historically, breakthroughs in innovation have been preceded by breakthroughs in measurement. And we exist in a time where, for the very first time, we can begin to understand objectively what happens in the classroom and how much learning happens. Is that necessary? Absolutely. Is it sufficient? Probably not. So I would say, start with objective assessments of student learning.They should include value-added assessment. They should include objective achievement based assessments. They should also probably also go beyond standardized tests and measure more rigorously and more deeply. So, I would say standardized tests are necessary but probably not sufficient. I think there are reasonable disagreements on what should be included and what should not be included in student learning, so I would encourage people to, if you disagree with my definition of student learning, nothing prevents you from identifying and defining student learning the way you think it should be defined and going out and finding high-performing teachers who achieve that definition and studying what they do and determining what drives their success and going from there.



Jal Mehta did just that. Mehta is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he studies and writes about improving American education, with a particular focus on the professionalization of teaching. He recently completed research for his book “In Search of Deeper Learning” that looks at what effective teachers do in their classrooms to produce powerful  instruction.



The teachers in our study, when we asked them – again, this is high school – so when we asked them what the biggest barriers were to deeper learning, they said testing, pacing guides, and teacher evaluation systems. Those are the three things that sort of stood in their way. I’ve heard people say, and I think it’s true, that if it’s a test in math or reading that evaluates like fairly basic skills that  like if you taught students well doing good things, they would be able to do well on that test and I think there’s some evidence for that fact. But as a sort of  system-wide phenomenon, if you have a massive system of testing and you have a lot of kids who are far from being able to do well on those tests, you’re just incentivizing a lot of people to teach to those tests and that’s what’s happened.




Dr. Katz thinks an over focus on test scores corrupts teaching.



Without evaluators going to schools and looking at the climate in a qualitative way, then we’re just going to have, we’re creating the same kinds of incentives to define effectiveness much the same way that Enron had it. If you can get your spreadsheets to look right, you’re effective, but nobody’s actually taking a good hard look at what your practices are.



Dr. Mehta and his research partner Sarah Fine were able to come up with certain practices that were common to effective teachers who attempted to create learning experiences for their students.



So, I guess the best teachers we found had two very different types of virtues. So, on the one hand, they were enthusiastic, encouraging, passionate about their fields or disciplines, and they really conveyed that to students. So, the old, not fill a pail, light a fire, they were trying to get students interested in what they were doing, but on the other hand, they had standards for what they thought good work looked like, and they were pretty relentless in asking students to revise, clarify, refine their thinking. So, I think if you can find a teacher who can do those two things with students, chances are that the students are in good hands



These kinds of teachers are the kind who aren’t particularly drawn to the kinds of schools where the Taco Bell type of management by control is practiced. Joanne Golann, an assistant professor of public policy and education, and of sociology at Vanderbilt University, has studied teachers and teaching inside high-performing “no excuses” charter schools. No excuses schools, like a few I’ve visited in Boston, manage students and teachers with something that looks very much like factory work. But these schools often outperform public schools and have high test scores.



With that, then comes these strategies of controlling teachers because we want to make sure that they’re meeting these prescribed goals that we’re setting out for them. So I do think it’s related to this idea of you know, pressures to meet exacting standards for student outcomes and then so the way we know how to do that is to control teachers’ work. In the organizational literature, there are these two theories about how we can manage workers. And one’s called the control model and one’s the commitment model. The control model is that you have managers who can see the one best way of doing something and then the workers execute that, and they’re monitored very closely to make sure they follow these prescribed steps. That’s a model you would see in factory work. It came out of that, but under the commitment model, a very different model, which is this idea of trying to motivate people to do the best work that they can do. That they feel self-fulfilled in their own work by giving them greater autonomy, by giving them greater decision making power over their choices.



During a year of traveling and talking to undergraduate students in places like Indiana University, I heard many students say that a lack of choice and creativity is what is making them rethink the decision to teach. That’s something that worries Dr. Katz because we’re already experiencing teacher shortages.



We may be really getting to a point where we are not able to incentivize enough young people to want to become professional teachers to actually have enough teachers in our schools. And if we don’t start asking the really big and important questions about who do we want to become teachers, why do we want those people to become teachers, and who do we need to become teachers? And how do we actually maintain a healthy pipeline of people who are incentivized to go into the classroom, we are going to be in a very, very difficult place.



It’s a difficult place for kids, too. Especially those who want to go on to college. Does the Taco Bell model of high control and test-driven curriculum work for them once they’re in college? Is there data on the college persistence rates for graduates of no excuses schools? Dr. Golann said there’s not much.



There’s not much because these schools are fairly young and just kind of getting their kids to college. One statistic I often cite is from the KIPP schools. In their report, they found that only about a third of students persisted to a college degree and that was a percentage much lower than they’d been aiming for. You know, they’d been aiming for something more like three quarters of their  students graduating from college and that actually led them to making some shifts in their practices to emphasize things like character education more, so that’s one, but there’s not much in terms of long-term outcomes for students. There’s some literature that suggests that they may not be developing some of the social and behavioral skills that are useful for longterm success. There’ve been a couple large studies based on surveys of students and finding that students in these types of schools aren’t developing these skills. That the schools are actually pushing skills you’d think they would like grit, self-control, high academic aspirations, those types of behaviors that we know are helpful. So that suggests that this controlling environment that they’re in isn’t actually teaching them to persist or show self control.



What does all of this mean for people working in schools right now? I asked three of my colleagues, all of whom were teachers and later administrators, to discuss their thoughts about where we are now with teaching and where we might go. You’ll hear fromRay Schleck is a former history teacher with both charter school and international school experience, and who was most recently principal of Match Next charter public school in Boston, MA.  Keri Randolph, was an award-winning high school science teacher in North Carolina, and who was most recently the assistant superintendent of innovation for Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, TN.

First up is Lance Huffman, a former English and History teacher, was most recently the principal of Cocopah Middle School in Scottsdale, AZ. Who often had to make a kind of Sophie’s Choice when it came to recruiting and retaining teachers.


Would I like everybody to be gifted at instruction and pedagogy and gifted at connecting with children? Of course. But in the absence of that, as a teacher leader, I was often most concerned with trying to get a lot of teachers into the building at an acceptable level of quality instruction where kids are moving in a measurable way towards academic standards. So, realistically, the second bucket was where a lot of my attention has been.


Keri Randolph acknowledges that difficulty, but also believes that the artisanal model, what we would call the opposite of the Taco Bell model, is the kind of teacher we should be looking for.


I think what we need, and we throw around the word pedagogy a lot, but really for me it’s about making that content relevant and accessible to all kids. And I think that includes cultural competency and a lot of these things. But really when you get to the heart of all that, I think the thing that we forget when we talk about effective teaching is it’ really a creative and dynamic profession. It isn’t a set of moves or a scripted kind of situation. At its real root is this creativity and relationship building and relationship with the student.


Ray Schleck doesn’t argue with that, but he’s more focused on the teachers who aren’t the type we might call a chef, like Keri describes. There aren’t many of those, he said, but quite a few teachers who struggle to do their work.


When somebody is struggling in the classroom, how do you help them get better? And this is the tension between Keri, what you were talking about where teaching is an art, teaching is a creative craft, and this idea of explicit teacher moves that we give to teachers to execute in this seemingly robotic way doesn’t fit with that picture of what teaching is. I think there’s something to that. I also think when you have somebody in the classroom and a kid stands up and chucks a pencil across the room, you’re asking especially a new teacher, to think through the implications of what they’re going to do in real time and there are often too many things happening in the moment for a young teacher, a new teacher to effectively think through all the implications. And so this response to Teach Like a Champion or this more scripted set of moves or even a scripted curriculum is actually just trying to take some of the cognitive load off the teacher so they can focus on something else. And that to me is actually a very reasonable thing to do with people who are struggling or people who are new is you try to take things off their cognitive plate.


Keri says that’s fine, but whose moves are we going to teach? And what happens when they don’t work for everyone?


But I will say what makes me uncomfortable about that and the thing that I struggled with to be honest, as a new teacher, is I was taught there was one way to manage a classroom. It didn’t work for me and my personality, but I tried to do it. I’m a conscientious person and this is what they said to do. It didn’t work for me at all and in fact, I figured out how to manage my classroom through engagement. I didn’t have strong procedures, rules, processes, but that’s what I tried to do. In the beginning, because that’s what they told me to do. I mean, I read Harry Wong, right? We all did, so I was trying to do that and it never felt – so I think it’s still this balance like yeah, you have to give people some starting, a starting point. But then, how do you help them become the teacher that they can be? Like, I’m not sure we do that. If you can’t do it this way, then you can’t work here or you’re not a good teacher or whatever. And I just don’t believe that.


Lance said that a principal has to think differently when it comes to teacher effectiveness.


I don’t know how to get people there other than to teach them these moves and then hope that they get generative and reflective from there. But they don’t always. And then my question is, well is that good enough then? As long as I’ve got a bunch of people moving a bunch of kids in a pretty good direction and they’re not hurting each other most of the time, is that good enough? As a principal, my answer to that question was yes, that’s good enough.


Ray brought up the idea of teaching teams, which points to a possible solution for these problems. From Dr. Mehta’s argument for professionalization, I learned about Elliot Krause’s idea of medieval guilds as a model for what we might do to help teachers in schools improve by helping each other become protectors of the craft and skill of teaching. A guild model could create networks of teachers with a place for everyone to learn and grow. It resists the control and command Taco Bell model model. For our final discussion, I asked Keri, Ray, and Lance for their thinking on that and also what hopeful solutions they have.


Well, I’ll jump in on that. Shanna, you and I have talked before about our union backgrounds and our teachers union roots and I spent some time as a union leader in a district and what I hoped for all along is that we would actually move the teachers association towards becoming more like that. And I think one of the more uncomfortable things we have to face as pro-teachers union people is, what I hear in your plan, is the teachers, in the guild, the teachers get to decide who moves up the ladder. That means they also have to be the ones who decide who has to be exited from the profession. Because, I think it’s fair that some people will say, when some people criticize us and our union backgrounds, to say we have protected too many bad teachers. And I think we should shift away from protecting bad teachers and think about protecting the profession. And that means that we have some pretty rigorous standards for what we mean when we say somebody is a master teacher.


Keri sees hopes for using technology to expand teacher support.


I think about it in terms of networks and I think about it as one of the things that will really help some of our rural communities, for example because we now have the possibility to network across time and distance in ways we’ve never had before and teaching hasn’t really tapped into that. And I mean tapped into that for kids and for the adults. I mean, there’s no reason that a phenomenal teacher, in I don’t know, Boston couldn’t help a chemistry teacher in Hole In The Wall Tennessee, and that’s a real place. Really, we just haven’t thought in those terms. We’ve been very traditional about how classrooms work and about how the profession works so I really think there’s a lot to be hopeful about because we have the tools to be able to do things we’ve never been able to do before.


Ray has a final thought about how the guild idea stacks up against the medical residency model.


So there’s a big tension within our field right now about how much do we emphasize the artistic creative side of teaching and the scientific, practical moves, for lack of a better word, side. And I actually worry that we are too much on the artistic, spiritual side and that’s going to perpetuate – talk about teachers needing more respect – I worry that we’re actually going to perpetuate that when we say everybody gets to do their own thing in their own way, everyone’s an artist. And I think we need a little more of the residency side of medicine where you spend a lot of time with someone who has proven themselves, under their watch and guidance. So this is back to your point, Shanna. I think this is a great first step.


Thank you all for talking about this. I love when smart people think about hard problems. And I also love ending on a hopeful note, so thank you.


Thank you to all my guests, Doug Lemov, Dr. Daniel Katz, Dr. Jal Mehta (who gave me great advice and encouragement in making this podcast and from whom I’m lucky enough to learn at Harvard), and Dr. Joanne Golann. Thank you to my friends and future doctors of educational leadership Keri Randolph, Ray Schleck and Lance Huffman. Thank you also to Liz City, the director of my program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and to everyone who listens, learns, and believes that education is our best hope for creating the future we all want.


What's on your mind?

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: