Most studies of student achievement point to teacher quality as the single most important variable when it comes to student achievement, and every parent in America knows what happens when their child is placed in the classroom of a teacher who is either very good—or very bad—at their job. Schools want good teachers; parents want good teachers; students want good teachers—everyone is in full agreement. However, just what is it that makes teachers good or bad at their jobs? Given the time and effort we spend training —and hopefully retaining the best of—our nation’s educators, it is worth considering the “Four C’s” that contribute to teacher excellence.
The first “C” should be a given: Competence. A teacher should be expert in all aspects of the subject matter they are hired to teach, and this knowledge base should extend beyond the specific classes they are asked to teach each year so that they can connect the dots between one piece of learning and the next. A Chemistry teacher should, for example, be able to relate the subject to biology, medicine, engineering, manufacturing, and a host of other practical applications so that the daily lesson doesn’t become yet another piece of disjointed information. Literature, by the same token, can be related to history, politics, psychology, and other areas of learning so that lessons begin to knit together into a tapestry of learning instead of a jumble of threads with no apparent purpose or meaning. A good teacher is, therefore, both a subject-specific expert and an enthusiastic and inquisitive generalist.
In addition, a good teacher must also be able to control their classroom. This is, sadly, not always an easy task—particularly for young teachers—but order is necessary for learning to take place. However, it is not the case that a teacher must shout and punish to manage their classroom effectively; the opposite is, in fact, the practice of the vast majority of effective teachers. By modeling positive methods for dealing with the inevitable problems that occur when managing children and adolescents in a classroom, our best teachers impart a critical life lesson—that mature individuals deal with difficulties with grace rather than anger. What better example of good behavior can educators impart to the young minds in their charge than remaining in control themselves as their control their students?
The third “C” seems perhaps a bit obvious, but it somehow eludes some of our teachers: Caring. This is not to say that our nation’s teachers do not care about their students—the vast majority do and make it plainly obvious through the sometimes absurd hours they work to keep up with lesson planning, committee assignments, and grading beyond the regular school day. However, teachers occasionally fail to communicate this caring to their students, which is a truly critical failing. Students, even the ones who work very hard to keep it a secret, care deeply about their relationships with their teachers. An enormous facet of this relationship is surprisingly simple: Does my teacher care about me too? Failing to close the loop by communicating caring to students impedes the success of every other good thing a teacher does in the course of a day.
The final “C” is one that simply cannot be overlooked: Character. It is not only that teachers are role models, but there is also a mechanism of the learning process that cannot be overlooked or overemphasized—students will learn little from teachers they neither like nor respect. Children and adolescents are keen and unforgiving observers of the adults around them; therefore, teachers who are immature or unreliable will rapidly lose the trust and attention of their students. Thus, all the money and effort we expend to improve teacher training and preparation will come to nothing if we do not take teacher character into account when we make decisions about recruitment and retention, and it should not be necessary for teachers to commit felonies before we are allowed to ask whether they have the character we expect of those who educate our young. The qualities of character needed to lead and inspire students should be something we aspire to see in every classroom in our country, and we must evaluate teachers accordingly by taking a look at what is in their hearts, as well as in their heads.