Effective teaching is a continual learning process, and each school year brings changes to which competent teachers must adapt. Changes can happen in terms of students, curriculum, building issues, colleagues, administrators, finances, health and safety concerns, families, communities, and a host of other influences on the daily lives of teachers. The foundation upon which teachers base their ability to adapt to changes and successfully navigate the complexities of the classroom comes largely from their personal abilities and experiences. These personal abilities and experiences can be classified as prerequisites to teaching—that is, competencies that are acquired and demonstrated before the teacher ever walks through the schoolhouse door.
Prerequisites of effective teaching are often considered in relation to novice teachers, but in fact they reflect the accumulated competencies and experiences that any teacher brings to the classroom. Research suggests that the following prerequisites are linked to effective teachers:
- Verbal Ability has a positive effect on student achievement.
- Content Knowledge as measured by majoring or minoring in the subject area or participating in professional development in the content contributes to increased student learning.
- Educational Coursework is a stronger predictor of teaching effectiveness than grade point average or test scores. For teachers who embrace the concept of life-long learning,continued professional development in their field results in increased student achievement.
- Teaching Experience, up to a point, is influential in teacher effectiveness, particularly in the areas of planning, classroom management, questioning, and reflection.
Teachers make connections with their students, colleagues, and students’ families through words and actions. Effective teachers know their students and how to communicate with them, both individually and collectively. Some students prefer “just the facts” while others want to hear a narrative, and then there are others with completely different learning styles and communication needs. Effective teachers carefully consider their audience when delivering a message. They observe reactions and decide how best to get their point across to different individuals.
The connection between teacher effectiveness and verbal ability is not new. Indeed, this finding simply verifies what people already know: the ability of teachers to effectively communicate influences the relationships they establish with others, the clarity of explanations to students, and, invariably, student understanding and achievement. While studies regarding the relationship between verbal ability and teacher effectiveness have produced varied results, generally the findings indicate that high test scores on verbal ability are associated with effective teaching.
In most cases, verbal ability is an indicator of teacher effectiveness because it relates to how well a teacher conveys concepts and skills to students. The students of verbally adept teachers learn more than peers taught by teachers with lower verbal skills. When students understand what teachers are communicating, and when teachers understand the signals from their students, a two-way communication process is created that enhances the learning of students. Consequently, as a general rule, effective communicators are likely to be more effective teachers.
Teachers cannot teach what they don’t know. The research clearly shows that teachers (particularly in the areas of mathematics and science) who have majored or minored in the subject area they teach attain better achievement results with their students than teachers without background in their subject areas (Wenglinsky, 2000). For example, a California study found that mathematics teachers who had a major or a minor in mathematics had students with higher test scores on the Stanford 9 Achievement test.
The relationship between teacher knowledge and student acquisition of knowledge makes sense. Successful teachers know the content and can determine the essential knowledge and skills that are necessary for mastery of the subject in order to integrate them into effective instruction. They can better convey their enthusiasm, understanding, and knowledge to students. These knowledgeable teachers also are better able to connect the “real world” to the topics addressed in the curriculum. Furthermore, the better job teachers do in teaching important subject-specific concepts and skills, the more likely it is that students will be able to access the material in the future—for example on a standardized test—or to transfer the information to a related situation or topic. Because people tend to study a topic in which they are interested in greater depth, those with a greater content knowledge tend to be more enthusiastic about their subject, and they can better engage the learner during the presentation of the lesson.
Effective teachers organize and present content knowledge and skills to students in a manner that helps the students access, interact with, and learn the material. Additionally, students value teachers who effectively convey their knowledge of the subject area through strong communication skills. One benefit of content-area preparation may be that teachers with a major or minor in a subject are more likely to attend professional development offerings in that area and incorporate application skills into instruction. In the final analysis, effective teachers have deep understanding and respect for their content area. Furthermore, they become experts in sharing their subject with their students in meaningful ways.
The research addressing educational coursework typically refers to the courses teachers took as part of their preparation program for teaching or as a part of postgraduate work to earn their teacher certification, but educational coursework does not stop with the signing of a teaching contract. Teachers must continue to develop their professional knowledge in order to renew their licenses and, perhaps more importantly, to renew themselves. For many teachers, this renewal entails taking graduate classes in education, attending conferences, and participating in a myriad of other professional development opportunities. What teachers do in terms of acquiring knowledge and skills, both before and after they begin teaching, influences the learning that occurs in their classrooms.
The value of educational coursework versus content-area study is often debated. We don’t advocate one instead of the other; in fact, both are critically important to effective teaching. The pedagogical courses that teachers take before entering the classroom influence their ability to convey curriculum and content to students and assess its acquisition. After studying 266 student teachers, researchers concluded that increasing subject-area coursework and decreasing education-related work would be counterproductive as there is a link between student achievement and teacher education coursework. Educational coursework provides a framework for effective teaching. Typically, it encompasses planning, assessment, classroom management, student development, and instructional pedagogy.
Teachers continue to develop throughout their careers as they learn the science and art of teaching. When educators participate in professional development offerings that relate to the content area or population of students they teach, it enhances their effectiveness, resulting in higher levels of student academic success. Enhancing the quality of professional development by linking it to teacher goals results in improved teacher effectiveness. For example, science teachers with professional development in laboratory skills have students who out-perform their peers.
There is no firm agreement in the research literature regarding how many years make a teacher “experienced.” For the purposes of effectiveness, the range appears to be between three and eight years as the point when teachers are first identified as “experienced”. Moreover, the relationship between teaching experience and teacher effectiveness is not always linear and tends to plateau before declining.
Experience does make a difference in teacher effectiveness, as it offers teachers the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from practice. This growth is a part of the learning curve that novice teachers experience as they begin their transformation into competent teachers. Consequently, students of experienced teachers tend to have higher levels of achievement. Negative effects on student achievement have been associated with the proportion of beginning teachers to whom students are assigned. Couple this finding with the fact that inexperienced teachers are disproportionately located in academically needy schools, and a troubling pattern emerges.
For teachers who are in collegial settings, experience tends to help those teachers improve throughout their careers. The key benefits of experience are that the teacher has time to
- develop an increased depth of understanding about the content and how to teach it to students,
- learn and use various strategies to meet students’ needs,
- learn how to maximize his or her usage of instructional materials, management of the classroom, and working relationships with others, and
- incorporate reflective practice.
adapted from "Handbook for Qualities of Effective Teacher" by James Stronge, Pamela Tucker, Jennifer Hindman.