Friday, September 5, 2014

The 2nd Friday: A Teacher's Impact

"Educators who believe in effort-based ability believe that all students can do rigorous academic work at high standards, even if they are far behind academically and need a significant amount of time to catch up. Educators who carry this belief into practice are not unrealistic about the obstacles they and their students face. They simply have not given up. And we know for sure that they will get results if they translate this belief into appropriate practice" (Saphier, 2005).

This week, I stopped by a classroom in our district and the teacher there shared a list of “teacher traits” that her students wrote, including things they did/did not want their teacher to do. It was fun to see students’ insights into what constitutes good teaching! I enjoy reading articles suggesting the key attributes of great teachers; luckily, there appears to be no shortage of such lists and research. However, I still find myself going back to one such list that was comprised by a researcher fifteen years ago (Traina, 1999). Although I typically cite more current research, this one still rings true to me today. Moreover, I think these traits are also ones covered by my colleague's students and would likely be met with approval from all students—our primary customers. The author sought to identify characteristics that are consistently cited by students and parents as those exhibited by their very best teachers. Traina maintains that these three traits are critical to effective teaching and have been so for generations:

What Makes a Good Teacher:

Command of subject matter. Effective teachers know their subject matter inside and out. In addition, they convey a love of, and passion for, their subject matter.

Caring deeply about each student and about that student’s accomplishment and growth. Effective teachers take time to consider each student as an individual and a unique learner. They take the time and make the effort to get to know about each student, inquiring of their interests, family, and so forth.

Distinctive character. Effective teachers add a special flavor and zeal to their instruction that creates a memorable impression on their students. Whether it is an eccentric sense of humor or a tragedy overcome, such teachers stand out in the minds of their students.

One thing we can do to fulfill the second trait is to communicate—and embody through our actions—that we believe in the ability of all students to achieve at high levels. We must communicate on a daily basis that being smart is “something you can get” and not simply something with which you are born. In schools that value effort-based ability that Saphier alludes to above, teachers constantly remind students of three crucial messages:

“The work we are doing is important.” 

“You can do it.” 

“I (We) will not give up on you.”

Have you ever had someone in your life who believed in you and consistently communicated to you that you were an able, valuable person who could and would do great things? In my high school days, that person was Mr. Bruce Campbell, an elementary school principal I met by fortuitous chance at a National Student Council convention in Marlborough, Massachusetts, in 1977. Mr. Campbell believed in me during a time in my life when—upon reflection—this must have been a rather gargantuan leap of faith. Because of his belief in my ability to succeed, even against all evidence to the contrary, I forced myself to carry on so that I could achieve my goals. Sixteen years after this man entered my life, our newborn daughter was bestowed the middle name “Campbell” in honor of all he did for me as a youngster. Teachers, you, too, will have this long-term impact on one or more of your students this year.

Believing that all students have innate capacity and that academic ability can be grown is a foremost tenet of successful educators. Obviously, we all are born with innate skills and abilities, but it is effective effort, not such innate ability, that is the main determinant of achievement. To demonstrate effective effort, however, students must understand the attributes of time, focus, resourcefulness, strategies, use of feedback, and commitment (Saphier, 2005). These factors are extremely important to student success, and we must directly teach our students how to manage time, how to focus themselves, how and where to go when they are stuck, how to use feedback, and how to reap the rewards associated with hard work and perseverance. These topics must be interwoven into every curriculum standard we expect our students to master.

If we consistently send these messages to students regarding our belief in effort-based ability, our students—even those most at risk or lugubrious—will begin to believe in themselves and become motivated to be thriving members of our school culture based on aspiration and responsibility. Why? Because someone cares about them…someone wants them to succeed…they know what to work on in order to do well…they know what good work looks like and where their current performance is in relation to it…they know how to exert effort…they believe it would be worthwhile to do well…and they believe they are able to do well.

Once again this year, I charge each of us to a noble calling: to become some young person’s Bruce Campbell, inspiring that student to levels of attainment even he or she is uncertain is reachable at this stage of life. This is important work…you can do it…I will not give up on you! Not giving up on our students is one of the many ways we teach with passion!



by Ken O’Connor

As I mentioned last week in my first “Book Bits” last week, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. The second problem, along with his fix:
Grades are broken when they include penalties for student work submitted late. Penalties distort the achievement record the grade is intended to communicate, can actually harm student motivation, and typically does not result in changes in future behavior. The fix is to set up support systems that reduce or eliminate the problem of late work.

We still need to let students and parents know when students’ work habits are not meeting expectations, but this should not be mixed with communications regarding academic achievement to standards. From Doug Reeves, quoted in O’Connor: The appropriate consequence for failing to complete an assignment is simply completing the assignment. That is, students lose privileges until they complete the assignment.


  1. You've hit the nail on the head. What a timely and important reminder for us - that we can make a life-altering difference in the lives of the kids in our classrooms. I think of that teacher who made the same difference for me, and know that because of her impact, it affects how I think about my learners. I want to copy and paste your third to last paragraph so I can read it until I have it memorized. Hope that's okay with you!

    1. Suzanne,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Glad for you to copy and paste that paragraph---so important to keep that in mind, in my opinion. Have an awesome week...

  2. Jeff,

    As always this is perfectly timed. First, I think it's fantastic that you are visiting classrooms and actively listening to the content and discussion. Second, your ability to share a personal story of Bruce Campbell really brings the post to life.

    Finally, my favorite part of the post was, "Believing that all students have innate capacity and that academic ability can be grown is a foremost tenet of successful educators. Obviously, we all are born with innate skills and abilities, but it is effective effort, not such innate ability, that is the main determinant of achievement."

    This is well said and spot on. Effort really does make the difference in almost everything we do. I believe teachers and adults need to model and teach proper effort. Unfortunately our youth does not always receive proper modeling of effort. Thank you for sharing and thank you for empowering educators to champion students.


    1. Ben,
      Thank you for reading and commenting! We need to foster a growth mindset within our kids and share our own stories with them--most of us got where we are through disciplined effort, not innate genius. Thanks again, Ben!