Academic journal article Education

Examining the Elusive Essence of a Superlative Teacher

Academic journal article Education

Examining the Elusive Essence of a Superlative Teacher

Article excerpt

Nationally, 25-30% of our "best and brightest" flee teaching after a one-year stint. A continuing dilemma in teacher education rests with identifying qualities that underlie successful, indeed exemplar, teachers in an effort to mold teachers-to-be in those images. Cruickshank (1986) observes that "short of the search for the Holy Grail, there hardly has been a human quest more persistently and doggedly pursued than the hunt for the 'good "teacher" (p. 1). What better place to begin than with a study of individuals identified by their states as "Teacher of The Year?" (TOY)

Lanier (1984) suggests that there is a need for "real-life exemplars of excellence." Who are these people? How do we determine what an exemplar of excellence looks like? What can we cull from that knowledge to apply to our sorely needed understanding of teacher excellence? One way to answer these questions is to examine carefully teachers who have been identified as outstanding. Researchers have virtually ignored persons named as outstanding teachers as a population in defining effective teachers (Berliner, 1986; Dillon, 1989; Easterly, 1983; Lortie, 1975). yet, it becomes clear in studying the ethos of TOYs that make this approach yields insight into the one issue of what makes an outstanding teacher. Furthermore, Van Schaack and Glick (1982) provide a basis with their suggestion that "the elusive essence of the superlative teacher ... can be explored by entering the superlative teacher's world and observing what they do" (p. 8).

What the Research Tells Us

For one semester I worked with three Teachers of the Year (TOYs) from _____. I became interested in this topic because of my own experience with award programs where teachers were often cited by administrators or colleagues but told "don't tell anyone about your award." Why are we so hesitant to applaud the work of outstanding teachers in our profession? What are the characteristics of teachers who have been selected as representative of excellence? I began my study with two basic questions: (a) who are the key individuals influencing the attitudes, values and beliefs of the TOYs, and (b) what are the ecological characteristics of the classroom for these TOYs?

Investigators studying effective teaching typically survey large numbers of teachers to understand the "how" of teaching. The perspective provided in this study, however, differs from the effective teaching studies and focuses on those teachers identified by an outside source (e.g., the Chief State School Officers) as teachers who are "representatives of the best." The study presented here focuses on the limited studies available on those persons recognized, through competition, as "outstanding teachers." Van Schaack and Glick (1982) indicate that "excellent teachers are caring, creative, enthusiastic, and intellectually curious people who have positive attitudes toward themselves and their students" (p. 6). Cruickshank (1986) argues that the search for a good teacher changed in the 1960s because of two factors: (a) the emergence of models to guide inquiry on teaching, and (b) the appearance of more objective classroom observation instruments.

Lanier offers three parameters that appear to shape and form the profiles of effective teaching: (a) the teacher as an effective person, (b) the teacher as a skilled performer, and (c) the teacher as a professional decision maker. In focusing on the needed research, Lanier (1984) concludes that "well-educated teachers are in the best position to assess needs and design educational strategies best fitted to the specific characteristics of individual classrooms" (p. i).

Methodology

Subjects

The participants in this study were three TOYS in the last decade. Selection of the three subjects was based on three previous studies (McKay, 1987; Van Schaack and Glick, 1982; Wiedmer, 1983) that clarified that TOYs are classroom teachers committed to the classroom as teachers (as opposed to individuals planning lateral or horizontal promotions). …

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