Great teaching? Only if they’re learning

He’s a great teacher, but when he was explaining calculus, I really couldn’t understand it.

He ran a good workshop, but when one of the teachers didn’t get something, he just explained it the same way again.

Is anyone else confused?

I heard both of these comments this summer — just part of casual backyard conversations — and they stuck in my head. What does it mean to call someone a “great teacher” if the students aren’t learning? What does it mean to run a good workshop, if the leader doesn’t adjust and address teachers’ needs?

I think we still have a deep misunderstanding of what “great” or effective teaching really means (despite all the books and movies on this subject).

Here’s what I think these two individuals meant by their comments. (BTW, I don’t mean to be excluding female teachers, but both of them happened to be talking about men.)

He was a great teacher/leader…

because the class was interesting. 

because he was nice and funny. 

because he understood the subject and came to class prepared. 

because he cared about me and made me feel welcome. 

Those are all good things, no question. Most are necessary conditions for effective teaching, especially the last two. But they are not sufficient. 

What makes a great teacher? It’s pretty simple, really. A great teacher makes sure the students learn.

A great teacher realizes that the calculus students are lost, or the workshop participants don’t understand the fractional-reserve banking system, and finds a different approach. Maybe that means creating more opportunities for student voice. Maybe that means incorporating problem-based learning or flipping the classroom. Maybe it just means finding a new way to explain a concept.

It also means using formative assessment, like exit slips and quizzes — not just a thumbs up or down — not because it’s a trend or because the principal says to, but because that’s how we know what our students are learning or not learning. 

As we look to the next school year — and I know it’s started for many teachers already — we need to hold ourselves accountable to one standard. Our students must be learning what we’re trying to teach them, and if they are not, we need to figure out why not and adjust.

Martha Rush is a teacher, author, curriculum developer, speaker — and occasional blogger. She’s working on her second book, a joint project with Quarter Zero to bring lean entrepreneurship to more high school students. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information on Martha’s projects. And have a great start to the 2019-20 school year! @MarthaSRush #beatboredom