What makes a good teacher? Vermont educators, kids discuss the characteristics of a quality educator
When students aren't looking at their phones, whispering to their classmates or asking in succession to go to the bathroom, you know there might be a good teacher heading the class. The teacher is doing something right by keeping kids' full attention.
Both Vermont and Massachusetts have teacher evaluation systems that involve multiple steps, supervisors, detailed metrics and rubrics. But not all signs of good teaching are tangible or can be summarized by a brief description listed in a box.
"A good teacher is one who is able to create an environment where students are enthusiastic about learning," said Don Linden, a teacher at Vermont's Putney Central School. "A good teacher is able to make this happen no matter what is going on in a student's life. A good teacher is able to make this happen regardless of any difficulties in their own personal life. A good teacher is able to make this happen in spite of the troubles in the world that we need to be prepared for. A good teacher enjoys the enthusiasm of youth so much that it overcomes all difficult parts of the job."
Teachers need to be not only academically skilled but they also need to have very good interpersonal skills, enabling them to connect with students, parents, fellow teachers and the local community.
"It really does take the community to raise the kid," said Patty Lea, a sixth-grade teacher at Mettawee Community School in West Pawlett, Vt., part of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union.
Teaching the whole child
In decades past, it was enough for teachers to be experts in their subject areas; now, they need to also know how to support students emotionally and socially, said Tim Payne, principal at Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington, Vt.
During classroom observations, Payne said, supervisors evaluate teachers based on the content of their lessons, the kinds of questions they ask and the type of feedback they give students, as well as the class environment shaped by their students' behavior.
Scotty Tabachnick, principal of Newbrook Elementary in Newfane, Vt., says a great teacher takes the time to know, love and support their students.
"They challenge every student and ensure individual progress," he said. "Great teachers use formative assessment data to plan their differentiated lessons and flexible groupings. They collaborate with and borrow from other great teachers. Great teachers inspire their students and their peers."
"My teacher helps me to understand math problems. She understands me and the problems I might have too," said Riley Taylor, a sixth-grader at Newbrook. That teacher is Joyce VanPamelen, aka "Miss VP," to her students.
among the qualities that the Manchester, Vt.-based Burr and Burton Academy seeks when the independent high school hires teachers are an understanding of adolescent development and the drive to advocate for teenagers.
Such teachers know young people face their own sets of challenges outside of school, and teachers need to support them through their struggles. This support includes creating engaging lessons so students are not just following along in class but are showing initiative and excitement about learning, said Burr and Burton Academic Dean Jen Hyatt.
"The ultimate goal is really to prepare them to be engaged citizens of the world," Hyatt said, "[to] get them ready to be great contributors once they leave our school."
Teaching is tireless work
Lyle Holiday, superintendent of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union in Vermont said, "A good teacher must be flexible and change at a moment's notice. The good teachers I know are not afraid to try new teaching methods [and are] always looking to find a better way to reach all students. Good teachers never give up on students. They come back day after day working to ensure they are always doing the best that they can for their students."
In this age of data being available at the tap of a computer screen, good teachers also train children on how to find useful information that can help them solve problems, said Rosanna Moran, principal at The Dorset School in Dorset, Vt.
When it comes to evaluating teacher performance, Moran said she wished there were more time available for conversations between principals and teachers. She'd like more insight, for example, on the process that goes into teachers' decisions, such as how they group students for class work, how much choice students have in exhibiting their understanding of lessons and how their progress is monitored.
Public schools in the Vermont area conduct classroom evaluations of teachers at different frequencies — from once a year to a handful of times year every three years — depending on the length of time a teacher has been with the school.
"It's hard to find that time" for evaluation, Moran said. "Teachers are often busy."
Knowing that classrooms are dynamic environments, Cathy Reed, a fourth-grade teacher at Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, expressed a desire for a more holistic evaluation process that occurs more frequently and at random. It's important, she said, for evaluations to take into account a teacher's relationships with students, parents and fellow teachers.
"All of those things tie together to create a solid education," Reed said.
Among all good educators, the goal is for today's students to become tomorrow's good citizens through the process of lifelong learning.
"There are so many styles and varieties of good teachers, but the common quality amongst all the good/great teachers that I have had the privilege to observe and work alongside is that they are always working to improve their practice," said Lilly DePino, a teacher at Dummerston School. "They are never fully satisfied with a lesson, learning event, field trip, project etc. There's always room for reflection and improvement. It is tireless work, but really good teachers know that the job is never done."
Bob Audette is a reporter with the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 802-254-2311, ext. 151.
Tiffany Tan is a reporter with the Bennington Banner. She can be reached at email@example.com, @tiffgtan at Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.
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