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Originally published September 22, 2009 at 4:24 PM | Page modified September 23, 2009 at 10:23 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

What makes a good teacher a good teacher?

Cheer the Seattle-area students among 16,000 students nationwide who are National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. Then cheer their teachers.

Seattle Times Editorial Columnist

No surprise, high-schoolers throughout Puget Sound are among those recently named National Merit semifinalists.

A round of applause for hard work. I'm hoping these young whizzes can shed light on the topic du jour in education: good teachers. The most attention-getting aspects of education reform, both at the federal and local level, center on teacher quality.

The concept of merit pay is a carrot to incentivize and reward good teachers. Accountability embedded in reform measures are well-intentioned efforts to identify and get rid of bad teachers sooner. A challenge for policymakers, and a frightening prospect for teachers, is knowing how to discern a good teacher from a bad one.

I sought out students and teachers, those best able to articulate what teachers are doing when things work well in the classroom.

They're exhibiting deep passion and knowledge of their subject matter, says Stephanie Holden, a Nathan Hale High School senior and semifinalist. They're teaching in a Socratic-style meant to break down a classroom's "I teach, you learn" rigidity.

"My 10th-grade history teacher, the way he talked about history made it seem more like stories," Holden tells me. "I saw the entire class get involved."

More tips on producing the best and brightest comes via a blog for teachers and one poster in particular who went by the online moniker Skinny Jinny.

"Make students responsible for materials and learning," Skinny Jinny advises. "You do no favors by teaching them that someone will always be there to loan them the tools they need or let them slide when they are late."

Embedded in debates about class sizes is universal agreement that teachers ought to deploy different instructional styles to address the varied ways students take in knowledge.

I don't know where Skinny Jinny teaches — it was a blog of largely anonymous posters so Skinny Jinny may be a porcine male — but the advice to teachers who want to improve is dead on.

"Many teachers are overwhelmed and forget that not all students can read the material and spit out answers to the questions. Some need Venn diagrams or advance organizers, some need the auditory input, others need small groups or individual attention."

If we get around to doing more than talk about merit pay, Skinny Jinny gets a bump.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has turned its sights and ample funding toward teacher effectiveness. The foundation is earmarking $500 million over the next decade to identify what teachers do when they teach well and how to turn those qualities into a rating system that will help recruit, train, assign and assess teachers.

I'm eagerly awaiting a study about teacher quality in the Seattle Public Schools. The report, from the nonpartisan National Council on Teacher Quality, was supposed to have been released during the summer. It will be similar to a study by the council — and funded by the Gates Foundation — that examined school policies and teacher contracts in Hartford, Conn.

Now slated for early next month, the Seattle focus will be welcome because of fast-moving policy efforts on teacher accountability at the federal and local levels.

It will take legislation and substantial funding to dramatically improve teacher quality across the nation. That's why President Obama wants to spend billions reforming schools. But too many good teachers are already showing us what works — too many to ignore them. I am compiling a list of tiny best practices.

Here's one: A teacher I read about interviews her students in private one-on-one sessions, each one a full minute, at intervals throughout the year. She takes notes on 3-by-5 cards and uses the information as a way to gain insight into her students' lives and to gain their trust.

I'm looking for more best practices. Got some, send them my way. And cheers to the National Merit semifinalists and a vital nod to the teachers who brought them this far.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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