Good teaching isn’t about following a “rigid list of the most popular evidence-based tools and strategies,” veteran high school English teacher Renee Moore tells Kristina Rizga for The Atlantic’s On Teaching series. The most effective teaching tools, Moore suggests, are intangible qualities that directly address the fundamental human needs of a diverse classroom community—traits like empathy, kindness, and a deep respect for the lives and interests of individual students.
Working from a place of caring, Rizga reports, the best teachers establish deep connections with students, and then build up to a “daily commitment to bringing in well-considered, purposeful practices and working child by child.” For master teachers, then, the person precedes the pedagogy—and finding the right mix of practices, at least to some extent, is contingent on knowing what each child needs.
Rizga travelled across the country for two years for the series, interviewing some of America’s most accomplished veteran teachers in an effort to collect their wisdom and discover “what has helped them bring out the best in their students.” The result is an edifying collection of stories that touch on issues from race and culture to advice about how to teach remotely.
We pulled out some of the most constructive, foundational ideas that informed teacher mindsets through decades of work in the classroom, and helped them inspire even the most reticent students to grow and learn.
Part of getting to know students, says high school English teacher Pirette McKamey, involves watching and listening as students speak in class or in the hallway, and observing how they express themselves in their work. “Every time a student does an assignment, they are communicating something about their thinking,” says McKamey, who is now the principal at Mission High School in San Francisco. “There are so many opportunities to miss certain students and not see them, not hear them, shut them down.”
It also means finding opportunities to connect with each child individually. Moore recalls a 17-year-old student who, in spite of excelling in math class, struggled with writing in her English class. After spending time with the child after school, she found he lit up when discussing sports and family—subjects she encouraged him to write about, resulting in more complex, lively writing. She also recorded their conversations and asked the student to transcribe the recordings—without worrying too much about spelling and grammar—an exercise that allowed him to see proof of his “capacity for unique ideas and analysis,” and opened the door for Moore to begin teaching him grammar and composition. The student became the first of his six siblings to graduate with a high school diploma.
The experience “taught me the power of getting to know your students well enough to teach,” says Moore, illuminating the powerful but not always intuitive connection between relationship-building and improving academic outcomes. Instead of designing pedagogy around individual student needs, “we’re shuffling kids through a system designed on a factory model, and we often give up too soon, because they don’t get to grade level by the time the system says they should. When they don’t, we say they’re not ready to learn or are hopeless. But they are just not on our schedule; it has nothing to do with their innate potential or ability.”
When Moore surveyed her students for a research project in 2000 about best practices for teaching English, students confirmed what she’d long suspected: They learned best when teachers “saw and heard them as individuals, helped them understand their strengths, and connected what they were learning with their future ambitions.” When, instead of recognizing and supporting student effort, teachers focused on minor issues like lateness or poor grammar, students reported feeling discouraged.
Finding time and head space for reflection—especially after teaching all day, grading assignments, fielding student and family queries, and preparing for the next day’s lessons—is challenging but absolutely essential to good teaching. It’s also not just about reflecting on your pedagogy.
McKamey got in the habit of spending her commute going over what she’d observed about each student that day. “She noted, for example, any body language that might indicate disengagement, like expressionless faces, or heads on desks,” writes Rizga. She also tracked student engagement, going over in her mind instances when she saw, for example, students chatting spontaneously about assignments, or doing extra work. “The next day, McKamey would synthesize what she’d observed, and adjust her lesson plans for the day ahead.”
When thinking about productive relationships, teachers should think laterally too: acknowledging and tapping into the strengths of colleagues was a trait of master teachers. Peer networks allow educators to learn from each other, enrich their practice, and access a valuable support network that helps teachers feel connected and more likely to stay in the field.
For many seasoned educators, peer networks are “the main mechanism for transferring collective wisdom and acquiring tacit knowledge that can’t be learned by reading a book or listening to a lecture—skills such as designing a strong lesson plan with precise pacing, rhythm, and clear focus, for instance, or building positive relationships among students,” Rizga writes in another piece in the collection.
“When they struggled—and all of them told me they did—they conferred with colleagues at the school, or teachers in professional associations, or online communities. And together, these teacher groups acted intentionally to identify the challenges students were facing and come up with personalized plans,” Rizga reports.
When teachers were able to share insights and intentionally plan together, they collaborated across academic subjects in new and creative ways, Rigza writes, coming up with valuable lessons and programs that were “more likely to be culturally specific, speaking to the realities of their students’ lives.”
Former high school English teacher Judith Harper, for example, worked with her teaching colleagues in Mesa, Arizona, to help boost students’ public speaking, interviewing, and college-essay-writing skills. Many of her students came from “working-class and Latino families who didn’t always speak English at home,” and building these skills opened up new opportunities for them. Rebecca Palacios, an early-childhood educator in Corpus Christi, Texas, worked with her teaching colleagues to launch a coaching program to help the Latino parents of her preschool students learn how to support their children’s reading skills at home.