Enacting key characteristics of effective teachers


By Dr Barrie Bennett

In this first of a series of articles, I explore practical insights into the process of observing and having conversations with educators to refine and extend the instructional practices of teachers.

In this article the focus is on instructional concepts that are always identified as characteristics of an effective teacher. The irony is that even though they are consistently identified as key characteristics, the teacher cannot specifically “enact” them.

In future articles I will play with specific instructional skills (the least complex); instructional tactics (mid complexity) and instructional strategies (the most complex and powerful methods) and last, the instructional organisers (which, like the instructional concepts…cannot be directly enacted.

In the table below, I share examples from each of those areas.

1. Instructional conceptsKey concepts that cannot be enacted on their own.
Safety, accountability, meaningful, interest, feedback, success, correct level of difficulty.
2. Instructional skillsLess-complex but essential instructional methods.
Framing questions, wait time, sharing the objective and purpose, responding to student answers.
3. Instructional tacticsMid-complex instructional methods
Venn diagrams, Think Pair Share, Place Mat, 2/3 Person Interview, Ranking Ladders.
4. Instructional strategiesMost complex and powerful methods.
Concept Maps, Concept Attainment, Lesson Design, 5 Basic Elements, Jigsaw, Academic Controversy.
5. Instructional organisersLarger bodies of research that guide thinking and action.
Multiple intelligence, motivation, students at risk, gender, human brain.

Conversation 1: Instructional concepts

Overview – When principals observe teachers, principals often talk in concepts. Specifically, concepts that are very important but cannot be enacted.

For example – Principal: “Great sense of humour, students feel safe, you’re well organised” etc. Perhaps focus a bit more on accountability.

The problem is that teachers cannot “do” them.

For example, one does not say: “Oh look at that teacher safetying; no one safeties like she does.” Or: “Great job of ‘accountability’”.

So, what actually happened that indicated the teacher invoked safety and accountability? That said, principals have no choice but to identify those concepts such as safety and accountability; but in addition, they have to identify how the teacher did, or could, enact them.

For example: How does a teacher invoke safety, accountability and active participation?

Response: You were able to hold them accountable and to feel safe at the same time by providing them with the wait time for students to think and then share with a partner using Think Pair Share before you randomly selected them to share with the class. You also did not judge their answers, you simply thanked them and that encouraged them all to feel safe to share.

Below is a list of those most common characteristics. In the series of workshops being run by the SSTUWA, we illustrate how to enact each of the eight listed below.

Understand that I’ve picked eight; that does not mean this is the definitive or only list. For example, I put enthusiasm, humour, caring, winning over, with-it-ness, and the ripple-effect in the section on Classroom Management – which will be discussed in a future article.

1. Safety
2. Inclusion/belonging
3. Respect
4. Active participation
5. Accountability
6. Meaningful
7. Interest
8. Novelty

1. Safety

When observing teachers and discussing key strengths (or missing things), safety is most likely one of the most important of all concepts. If students don’t feel safe, then not much is going to happen in the classroom – especially when it comes to invoking the more complex instructional methods such as Academic Controversy and Team Analysis.

I start by sharing less complex ways teachers invoke safety and then shift to more complex ways of increasing the chances students feel safe. I also provide sample rubrics for teachers to self-assess (by the idea of self-assessment I am referring to the idea of a teacher’s professional efforts at self-regulation).

The rubrics are based on the work of Hall and Hord and their work related to the Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM) and more specifically, their work with Susan Loucks-Horsley on the Levels of Use of an Innovation (LoU).

Below are specific teacher actions you can observe that would indicate a teacher is invoking safety.

Less complex ways to invoke safety

1. Knowing and using the students’ names.

Note that how teachers say student names indicates safety. We can see how the teacher’s facial message also communicates safety.

For example, a teacher can say a student’s name with a smile or a roll of the eyes that makes kids smile or laugh. Keep in mind that how we say their names will also connect to classroom management, from a more light pink intensity that will have a kinder sound to a mid pink or light red that lets them know that they are pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Having those boundaries is also a part of classroom safety.

This also is key for school administrators. Marie Whelan, a principal with Edmonton Catholic Schools, who won an award as one of the top principals in Canada, had pictures of all the students in the school behind her desk; she worked hard to know all the names of the students in her school (about 400 students) within the first two weeks of the school year.

2. Facial features connects to the idea of student’s names. Observing teachers for the messages communicated by smiling or giving “the look” are clearly part of the art of teaching. When we ask students how long it takes to “‘suss” out a teacher at the start of the school year, they tell us that it takes about 30 seconds.

“We just have to look at their face,” they say. Think of the ways we communicate to students that they are safe (or not) in our classrooms. Our eyes, our lips – smiling or not – tell students that this is a place they are safe.

When we smile we produce endorphins – 400 times more powerful than the strongest opiate. This is where the idea of the “healing power of humour” evolved.

3. Use of humour and being enthusiastic are two key concepts identified as essential attributes of effective teachers. A professor from Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, interviewed secondary students. He was searching for the attributes of effective teachers in Newfoundland.

The two key concepts that came out first were having a sense of humour and being enthusiastic. What is important is that students are not asking us to be funny but rather to see or sense the humour in things.

Few people want to be taught by a voice-activated cadaver.

An example: I was just coming out of the principal’s office at a junior high school in Edmonton Public Schools (Alberta, Canada). Ron sees this student sitting in a chair and asks him why he was sent to the office. The student said: “Mr. X sent me to the office.” Ron then asked: “Why did he send you to the office?” The students replied: “Because I turned around in class.” Ron, an experienced sleuth asked: “How did you turn around in class?”

The student had turned around and was talking to the student behind him. When the teacher asked him to turn around the student stood up, turned around (360 degrees) and kept talking to the student behind him. The teacher replied: “Don’t you get smart with me, down to the office.” Can you see how the teacher reduced ”safety” in the class?

4. Use an open hand when selecting students to share, rather than pointing at the student and saying his or her name. Students from elementary to doctoral students tell us they prefer the open hand. It is more invitational; more respectful.

This may be an interesting and new idea when having conversations with teachers. In addition, students prefer to talk with a partner first and then have the teacher say: “Deborah, what were you and Enrico thinking?” Students tell us that at least if they are wrong, they don’t “die” alone in front of the class.

More complex ways to invoke safety

1. Providing wait time when asking questions (an instructional skill discussed back in the late 1980s and first researched by Mary Budd-Rowe in 1976) for students to think prior to asking them to share their ideas.

The more complex the question, the more wait time the teacher should provide. The more unpredictable the answer, the more wait time teachers should provide.

Mary Budd-Rowe’s research showed that students need at least three to five seconds to have an impact on their answer. When observing teachers, I just count to myself and use dashes when taking notes with each dash representing one second.

That way I can go back and have a conversation about how much wait time is occurring.

Wait time provides the opportunity to think privately. Any of their less accurate answers die privately; rather than dying publically.

Taking time to think first is often known as covert or hidden. When they have to somehow share their answer, then it is known as overt.

So, when teachers are framing questions, they have students shift from covert (safe) to overt (accountable).

Of course with some questions like: “Where do you live?” you usually don’t need wait time. Wait time is the science. How much you provide is the art.

2. Framing questions using wait time (an instructional skill first discussed by Millar back in 1897); this provides the information students require that lets them know how much time they will have to think; whether or not they will share with someone or in their group first, and how they will be selected to respond.

Keep in mind that very few teachers frame questions effectively, so don’t expect to see this when observing teachers.

For example: “We’ve all seen how I added this fraction with unlike denominators, just think to yourself first for about 15 seconds, what were the steps I completed? When I say go, you will share with your elbow partner, making sure you both get a chance to talk. In about 45 seconds, I will then randomly call on three of you to tell me what your partner told you. Make sure you are all prepared to share.”

Note, the problem is too often too much safety and no accountability. So when teachers ask questions like this, “Who can tell me? Can anyone explain? Hands up if you have…” you have a lot of safety, but most students will not be involved because the teacher has not invoked individual accountability.

3. Using Think Pair Share (TPS); a small-group instructional tactic developed by Lyman back in the 1980s. Here you employ wait time and framing questions.

Without wait time and framing questions, Think Pair Share is not that effective. So here the teacher is providing time for the students to think after framing a question and then the students share their answers publically.

Most teachers do not employ wait time correctly; they do not frame their questions, and if they do happen to employ TPS, they do not first employ wait time and framing questions.

4. Teaching students appropriate social and communication skills: Social skills such as taking turns, appreciation statements, and equal voice; and communication skills such as attentive listening, and checking for understanding.

Instructional Concepts – Rubrics

Below is a rubric designed around Levels of Use from the research on the Concerns Based Adoption Model.

1. SafetyLittle to no evidence of safety being enactedSome evidence, especially with the less complex approachesClear evidence, especially with the complex approaches
2. Inclusion/belongingLittle to no evidence of safety being enactedSome evidence, especially with the less complex approachesClear evidence, especially with the complex approaches
3. RespectLittle to no evidence of respect being enactedSome evidence, especially with the less complex approachesClear evidence, especially with the complex approaches
4. Active participationLittle to no evidence of active participation being enactedSome evidence, especially with the less complex approachesClear evidence, especially with the complex approaches
5. MeaningfulLittle to no evidence of meaning being enactedSome evidence, especially with the less complex approachesClear evidence, especially with the complex approaches
6. InterestLittle to no evidence of interest being enactedSome evidence, especially with the less complex approachesClear evidence, especially with the complex approaches
7. NoveltyLittle to no evidence of novelty being enactedSome evidence, especially with the less complex approachesClear evidence, especially with the complex approaches