Great Teaching: What It Is and How to Get It for All Our Children

Nothing has as much impact on our children's education as the quality of teaching. As parents, we need to learn to recognize and insist on great teaching for our kids.

By Sandra Whitehead

Bob Kann, a nationally acclaimed educator, enters a middle school gymnasium riding a unicycle in front of 300 sixth-graders seated on the floor. As he spins circles around the crowd, he explains the role of the jester in a medieval court.

Dressed in a checkered jester’s shirt, Kann juggles a sword, an ax and a dagger.
What Parents Can Do:

How to Spot a Great Teacher 

“Don't try this at home kids, unless your mother’s not home,” he jokes. While giving a brief overview of the physics of juggling items of various weights, he tosses up a toilet seat, a plunger and a roll of toilet paper.

His young audience listens in rapt attention as he goes on to discuss strategies for creating and telling stories with imagination and expression, key aspects of a court jester’s job.

Students leave the gym repeating Kann’s puns and punch lines to each other. He has clearly made an impression.

A great teacher needn’t be as flamboyant a performer as Kann, the former professor of education who left his university post to take his show on the road, speaking to student groups and teacher in-service workshops across the country.

“Great teachers come in many forms,” says Kann. “Two of the best teachers I know have very different styles. One is very laid-back; the other is theatrical and dramatic. The first follows a very clear structure, giving students very specific guidelines and instructions. The second gives students many choices. They are both terrific in their own ways. They both engage their students in learning.”

Why Teaching Matters So Much

Most of us can remember a special teacher who touched our life.

“Sometimes you get that golden teacher,” says Julie Fedynich, a mother of six. When her son Craig’s fourth-grade teacher learned that he wanted to organize a chess team, the teacher stayed after school, sometimes four nights a week, to help him get it up and running. The chess club still meets, benefiting new students year after year – and Craig goes to visit that teacher whenever he can. “It’s so wonderful that they share a bond like that,” says Fedynich.

“Great teachers change lives,” says Kann, emphasizing that excellent teachers must both inspire students to continue learning and be competent enough to provide them with the skills and foundation they need to do it.

“We know that with excellent teachers, children’s skills improve immensely, that they produce creative, high-quality work that demonstrates excellence,” says Katherine Boles, a veteran elementary school teacher and co-author of Who’s Teaching Your Children?: Why the Teacher Crisis is Worse Than You Think and What Can Be Done About It.

On the other end of the spectrum, a bad teacher can do a lot of damage. “Poor teaching can have enormous negative effects that last for years,” Boles says.

“Several bad teachers in a row can derail a child’s education,” according to a 2002 Carnegie Challenge Report, which concludes that mounting research has confirmed “the common-sense notion that the quality of teaching is the single most important factor influencing student achievement.”


In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, by Deborah Meier, Beacon Press, 2002. Teaching as a Clinical Profession: A New Challenge for Education, by Michael deCourcy Hinds, Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2002.

The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, by James Stigler and James Hiebert, The Free Press, 1999.

Who’s Teaching Your Children?: Why the Teacher Crisis is Worse Than You Think and What Can Be Done About It by Vivian Troen & Katherine C. Boles, Yale University Press, 2003

Sandra Whitehead is an award-winning writer and a lecturer at Marquette University. She lives with her husband and three children