How to Spot a Great Teacher

By Sandra Whitehead


Parents can assess the effectiveness of an individual teacher by asking questions, observing classes and listening to their children.

While some schools allow parents to have input on the placement of their children with particular teachers, others do not. Either way, parents should learn how to identify effective teaching and to insist on it for their children. Educators offer the following suggestions:


Ask teachers about their curricula and goals for the class.Look for a sense of moral professionalism that manifests itself in a teacher’s goals and values. “Doctors take the Hippocratic oath; teachers should also take an oath that all children can learn,” says Anastasia Samaras, director of the Initiatives in Educational Transformation Program at George Mason University and former head of Catholic University’s teacher-education program. “They should believe in that principle and act on it.”

Ask teachers about their teaching philosophy. A great teacher has a clear philosophy of teaching, Samaras says. “It is very important that a teacher take the time to reflect on what good teaching entails,” she says. “It requires taking the time to know each student. That allows a teacher to see what a student understands and where misunderstandings arise. Students are more likely to succeed when they know a teacher knows and cares about them individually.”

Ask about teachers’ skills and credentials, just as you would when searching for a new family doctor or pediatrician. “It is rocket science,” Samaras asserts. “Teaching is very serious, difficult work.” Many people don’t acknowledge the extent of knowledge, skills and training that today’s teachers need, she says.


When you observe a class, watch the students. “When the teacher is effective, you can see students deeply engaged, no matter what the subject is,” notes Rose Asera, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation and coordinator of the Delta Teacher Education Project, a multifaceted study of the education of K-12 teachers.

This may seem deceptively simple, but a lot goes on for this to happen,” Asera says. “A great teacher understands the subject matter, and knows about kids and how they learn. He or she can involve students in complicated ideas by starting with kids’ prior learning and moving to complex ideas.”

Look for active learning. “Great teachers know how to organize learning opportunities around a topic without being slavish to the subject,” says Asera. “They can think about not only what the teacher will do, but what the kids will do: how they will respond, and if there are any pitfalls or obstacles to learning that can be anticipated. They know and can use a wide range of teaching approaches. Enthusiasm and humor are part of the mix.”

Look at students’ work. “Parents can look at the quality of the work that comes home from school,” says Boles. “Are children filling out meaningless worksheets – or are they writing thoughtful answers to interesting questions that get at the meaning of what they are learning? Are they doing projects, even in kindergarten, that have meaning and are serious work? Is the artwork young children do related to what they are learning in class? Does writing accompany the artwork?”

Observe group interactions in class. “A great teacher is one who builds a strong classroom community,” says MacArthur Award-winning educator Deborah Meier, the author of several influential books on education reform. “Such a teacher creates a climate that is contagious, getting even the least likely kid drawn into the idea of being a learner.”

Great teachers understand children as individuals, but a great teacher also gains a sense of the class as a group, adds Asera. “Classes today include children with a wide range of backgrounds,” she says. “A great teacher can give the students individual attention and, at the same time, make the diversity a source of richness in the classroom.”

Look for an atmosphere that is safe for experimentation and exploration. “The classroom should be a place where we can laugh at our mistakes,” says Kann. “Learning is hard. To be willing to try, students have to know it’s OK to make mistakes.” The ideal situation is one in which the teacher is learning with the students, he adds. Students will see the teacher experiment, fail and then happily try another approach.

Look for relevant lessons. Great teachers teach students lessons that can be practiced in the normal course of living, Meier says. “My high-school teaching colleagues and I missed a great opportunity in the early 1990s when we ignored the breakup of the Soviet empire and just kept on with our self-prescribed course of study,” she says. “We did better when the world became so much more frightening for us all on Sept. 11, 2001. We took the time to explore the unsettling immediacies of the moment in depth and thoughtfulness with our older students.”


Listen to what your children say about school. “Parents will know their children have great teachers when their children come home excited about school and can talk about what they are learning with delight,” says Asera.

When children experience excellent teaching, they talk in new ways,” says Katherine Boles. “They don’t just spout the facts the teacher is teaching. They come home and talk about big ideas. They talk about ideas and how they connect – how science relates to the real world, how history is useful today. They think and talk critically about what they are reading.”

Older children will make judgments about their teachers, according to educator Bob Kann. As a parent, you know your children and can assess the value of their comments; they have a track record. “I find my son is a good judge of character,” says Kann. “When he tells me a teacher is boring or unfair, I believe him.”

See Also:

Great Teaching 

Become an Advocate for Great Teaching

Growing Great Teachers

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