There are endless articles, blogs, essays on the difference between good and bad teachers. All the frameworks for teacher evaluation highlight the shades of difference. But to my eye there are far too few adequate analyses of the difference between good and great teachers.

I actually find that latter distinction more interesting, in a similar vein to the Jim Collins inquiry on businesses: how does one go from good to great? And like Collins, I think the difference is qualitative – The actions, behavior, and attitudes of great teachers differ considerably from those of good teachers; it’s not just a matter of degree. (That’s why I find almost all the well-known evaluation systems humdrum – they focus on mere goodness instead of being designed backward from greatness. That’s for another blog).

Let me propose a set of distinctions – admittedly a bit glib – that may have value for sharpening our sense of what greatness is in teaching:

  • Great teachers are in the talent-finding and talent-development business.
  • Merely good teachers think they are mostly in the business of teaching stuff and helping students so that it gets learned.
  • Great teachers are aiming for the future: are these students better able to succeed on their own after me and without me?
  • Merely good teachers look mostly to the past: did they learn what I taught and did they do what I asked of them?
  • Great teachers decide what not to teach to ensure lasting emphases and memories
  • Good teachers cover a lot of ground while making the content as interesting as possible.
  • Great teachers delight in smart-alecks and skeptics who clearly have raw but undirected talent.
  • Good teachers are often threatened or bothered by smart alecks and skeptics.
  • Great teachers know us better than we know ourselves, especially in terms of intellectual character.
  • Good teachers merely know us as students of the subject.
  • Great teachers get more from us than we thought possible to give
  • Good teachers have high expectations and passions, and think that the rest is up to us.
  • Great teachers sometimes bend the rules and fudge the grades on behalf of raw student talent.
  • Good teachers uphold standards and grade according to the scores students earned.

Here is a report from a student’s science teacher – from the elite British school of Eton, no less – who in a final report makes clear his stance as a “good” teacher:

Alas for this teacher, the student in question grew up to be a Nobel prize winner who cheekily displays this report on his web site and has it framed in his office.

Such stories are not amusing outliers. I have personally witnessed many such reports and attitudes as a student, teacher, parent, and colleague.

I have often in workshops told the story of a former student of mine, Chris, who was mostly successful but viewed as a big pain-in-the-you-know-what by many of his teachers. I saw Chris up close not only as his teacher but as the advisor to the school paper where he was editor. He once got us all in trouble by writing an expose of the work and living conditions of the school’s cafeteria and building and grounds workers – published on parents’ day, no less. The Dean confiscated all the copies. I admired him and fought on his behalf a few times.

Chris grew up to be Chris Hedges, Pulitzer-winning report for the New York Times.

Many talented people in the arts are famously hard to deal with; John Lennon and James Brown are familiar examples. And speaking of talent recognition, Lennon and the Beatles notoriously FAILED their audition at Decca Records in 1962. (I have a high-quality bootleg of the tape: you can hear a song on my band’s site here.) Jaime Escalante, one of the most well-known great teachers, was extremely difficult to work with (as reported in the wonderful Jay Mathews account of Escalante’s work at Garfield HS). Had it not been for his Principal and some other knowing supervisors, Escalante would likely have never accomplished what he did. I saw a teacher in Portland HS in Maine years ago who was the greatest teacher I ever saw – Leon Berkowitz. He refused to join with his colleagues on school reform projects and was notoriously cranky.

There are numerous such stories about Albert Einstein, as readers no doubt know. (Alas, many of them are untrue, such as the story that he did poorly all through school.) But Einstein clearly bristled under the kind of good teachers I am describing (as recounted in Isaacson’s biography of Einstein):

He would later be able to pull off his contrariness with a grace that was generally endearing, once he was accepted as a genius. But it did not play so well when he was merely a sassy student at the Munich Gymnasium. “He was very uncomfortable in school,” according to his sister. “He found the style of teaching – rote drills, impatience with questioning – to be repugnant…the systematic training in the worship of authority was particularly unpleasant.”

Skepticism and a resistance to received wisdom became a hallmark of his life. As he proclaimed in a letter to a fatherly friend in 1901, “a foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”

I once led a workshop on critical thinking and asked teachers to fill out a T-chart with critical on one side and uncritical on the other. Curiously, many teachers proposed such indicators as attentive, disciplined, and follows directions and procedures carefully as indicative of critical thinkers. When I suggested that those sounded to me like indicators of compliance a teacher noted that, indeed, when she had proposed “skeptical” at her table they had rejected it as the hallmark of uncritical thinkers!

This is all very personal for me, as you might guess. I was a smart aleck; I was not a successful student for many years. It wasn’t until one high school teacher and one college teacher saw some talent in me to nourish that I turned the corner and began to believe in my worth as a thinker. I still seethe with dislike for a teacher who never once praised me for anything I did all year (though he was a very good teacher and highly respected by others). I almost dropped out of both college and grad school in the face of teachers who didn’t know me, didn’t care to know me, and only cared to give me low grades to teach me a lesson about hard work and scholarship. When I decided to be a teacher – in part, motivated to right the wrongs inflicted on me – I vowed to find and reward learners who showed potential, whether as thinkers, soccer players, teachers, trainers or unit writers. And I can honestly say that of all I have accomplished as an educator (and as a parent) I am most proud of what I have accomplished as a talent scout.

So, ask yourself, honestly: do your behaviors and attitudes suggest that you are sufficiently in the scouting and talent-development business? Or do they suggest that you are too much in the content-mastery business? (Notice I am not saying that it is impossible to be both; I am talking about the good teacher as being too focused on one and not the other).

Yes, yes, I know the pressures on you; I know the schedules, the syllabi, the standards, the evaluation system, the pressures of 700-page textbooks. Please, consider, however: do you think greatness comes without challenge and sacrifice, in teaching or anything else? More pointedly: do you really believe in the long run that it is mastery of your content that determines a student’s long-term fate? Can’t you think of teachers whose greatness lay in their ability to see and promote – sometimes at the expense of time, rules or policies – what others ignored in you? How, then, do you wish to be remembered as a teacher: merely good? Or great?


PS: For a nice story on teachers who were in the business of talent development and not content mastery, listen to Terry Gross’ re-played interview of Dave Brubeck on his death where Brubeck describes the ‘crisis’ at the end of his conservatory studies.