What Makes a Teacher Great?

I occasionally take a break from writing about risk and human behavior to write about education—a kind of slow-motion disaster. This fall, I spent months obsessing over an old puzzle, using very cool new tools. The question was, What makes some teachers truly exceptional—and others, well, unremarkable? The story, which appears in this month’s Atlantic magazine, is my attempt to solve the mystery.

I had a lot of help. I got access to a treasure trove of data from Teach for America, which has been studying this mystery longer and more rigorously than any other outfit. Then I spent days sitting in classrooms in DC public schools—classrooms that ran like powerhouses and classrooms where time just oozed by, with nothing much happening. I am grateful to all the teachers, principals and students who so graciously allowed me to observe and who talked to me about the realities of their classrooms.

Eventually, I learned that the way to spot a great teacher is not to watch the teacher. The secret is to watch the kids. In great classrooms, the students were in a hurry, and not just some of them. Their eyes tracked the teacher as he or she moved across the room. When the kids got an answer right, they whisper-shouted, “Yes!” and pumped their fists.

In other classrooms in the very same school, I saw the very same students stare off into space. They took extraordinary amounts of time to staple their homework or sharpen their pencils. They danced silent steps in their sneakers on the linoleum floors under their desks. They smiled at me and waved. When I sneezed, they offered me tissues. They were the same kids, but the adult standing in front of them was not.

This all matters because, as Kevin Huffman put it in a Washington Postcolumn the other day:

[T]oo often when we look at the sorry state of public education (on the most recent international benchmark exam conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. high schoolers ranked 25th out of 30 industrialized nations in math and 24th in science) we believe the results are driven by factors beyond our control, such as funding and families. This leads to lethargy, which leads to inaction, which perpetuates a broken system that contributes to our economic decline.

By now, the research is clear: the one factor that matters most in a child’s education is the child’s teacher. As kids, we knew this. There were great teachers—the kind who made you believe anything was possible. But we always chalked it up to some kind of magical power that few teachers could be expected to possess. Turns out we were wrong.

Finally, we can identify extraordinary teachers—with data, not hearsay—and investigate what they are doing differently. We can even make more of them. The question is, Will we?

GeneralAmanda Ripley