Mahwish McIntosh, Berkeley County Schools
Today in South Carolina, the need for more quality educators continues to grow for a number of reasons: educators retiring, schools and districts working to make class sizes more manageable for teachers, and an increasing number of communities that are experiencing unprecedented growth and development. Currently, it is estimated that South Carolina’s post-secondary institutions graduate only half the number of teachers needed to serve in our state’s schools and classrooms.
Crucial Characteristics of Effective Teachers
Being a quality teacher requires unique characteristics. Professionals involved in education at all levels seem to agree on the specific characteristics necessary for teachers to be effective in the classroom and successful as they continue to enhance their skills. These professionals have also shared common challenges that new (and experienced) teachers face, and the importance of teachers advocating for themselves as professionals.
“An effective educator must know what he or she is trying to teach (the content), how to effectively teach, and specifically focus on whether each student is learning what is intended. Focusing on each student involves getting to know and care about each and every one – building relationships is at the core of effective teaching,” stated Dr. Frances Welch, Dean of the School of Education, Health, and Human Performance at the College of Charleston.
Margaret Day, principal at Sangaree Middle School, looks for these important characteristics in an effective educator, “Teachers must be caring and approachable – teachers must demonstrate that they are caring and have a passion for teaching and learning. Students must know their teachers care about them and that they are willing to listen to their concerns, ideas, and frustrations. Next is flexibility – new staff members must be flexible both in their approach to teaching and their desire to implement new and innovative practices. Teachers new to the profession can share their ideas with their more experienced colleagues while also learning from them through the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) process. Being a team player is crucial since teachers may work on multiple teams to best serve students. I want someone in my school who will be an integral part of our team and who is also comfortable sharing ideas with colleagues. I also believe teachers should be adventurous – we must be willing to try new things and learn from these experiences through reflection and refinement. Embracing technology, for example, is just one way to help us as educators learn and grow to be more effective for our students.”
Julie Rogers, director of Human Resources for the Berkeley County School District, conducts many clearance interviews and travels throughout the country recruiting quality educators. She shared the most important aspects a quality educator should possess. “Passion for knowledge, teaching, and kids – body language, attitude, choice of words, and inflections in voice will usually let me know if a candidate truly has a passion for educating children. Also, effective people and communication skills are a must. Teachers who can express themselves professionally, positively, and effectively with all stakeholders will typically experience success with students, parents, and colleagues. These are the core and lifeblood of an educator who wishes to bring about change in his or her students.”
Common Challenges of Today’s Teachers
These experts also know the challenges that teachers face, specifically teachers who are new to the profession. Ron Wiggins, a full-release teacher mentor who works with many first-year teachers in the Berkeley County School District, shared his professional insight on the common challenges of new teachers: “Teachers new to the profession typically must work to improve their skills with classroom management and classroom environment. The new teacher should also remember that this aspect of being a teacher is always evolving, regardless of the years of experience a teacher has, but first and foremost, the teacher should work to build meaningful and professionally-appropriate relationships among students, setting high expectations in the classroom and continued encouragement towards students to improve their performance, both academically and behaviorally. Next, new teachers may struggle with communicating with parents, especially challenging parents. Experienced teachers can offer support to our new teachers by modeling effective approaches to communicating with challenging parents. Building a trusting relationship with parents is just as important as building a trusting relationship with students. Finally, our new teachers seem to become easily overwhelmed with all the initiatives at the federal, state, and district levels. Often I hear teachers asking, ‘why can’t I just teach?’ We can provide these teachers support by helping them prioritize their responsibilities, and reminding them that the top priority is helping students succeed.”
Like Mr. Wiggins, Dr. Welch noted in her experience working with clinical interns, the “shifts” that pose the biggest challenges as interns graduate and transition into classroom teachers.
“Clinical interns must create an atmosphere conducive to learning with routines and effective classroom management while always keeping teaching and learning primary. They must also learn to collect meaningful examples of student outcomes which show whether their students are learning or not learning. They must then analyze data for individual students and their classes, using this analysis to improve,” Dr. Welch added.
At the “ground level” and with ever-changing policies, legislation, and mandates, Mrs. Day also shared what she has observed as challenges that both new and experienced teachers face. “Time – teachers need time to teach, reflect on their practice, make changes based on student performance, and manage the daily responsibilities both in and out of the classroom. Next would be the changes to the evaluation process – learning new processes for teacher evaluation, like the student learning objectives (SLOs), initially has been tough, but teachers are seeing the value in looking at student performance data through multiple lenses. Finally, maintaining a healthy balance between one’s professional and personal life is always a challenge, but having a personalized system for managing this is essential.”
“Prepping” for the Profession – Interview Tips
Teachers who are ready to enter the profession should also understand the expectations of the interviewing and hiring process. Mrs. Rogers’ advice to applicants is to “do the research by going online and review the school’s report card and explain to the interview team how you can help through your own uniqueness as a teacher. Share experiences that have helped you grow as a potential educator – working summer camps, tutoring, any conferences you have attended. Let your interview team know you have taken advantage of as many learning opportunities as possible. Dress professionally and speak directly to the person and/or team interviewing and have confidence. Share your passion for the profession. Inquire about professional development opportunities.”
Beyond the First Year – Support and Self-Advocacy
As Mr. Wiggins works with many teachers new to the profession, he also offered this helpful advice regarding how teachers can advocate for themselves. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are new and learning the ropes of the profession, and asking for help can also demonstrate your commitment to becoming a more effective educator. Next, be willing to say ‘no’ if your plate is full and the request is not a required task. New teachers have lots of wonderful energy, but knowing when (and how) to say ‘no’ is very important and helps to further prioritize responsibilities. Finally, it’s crucial that you use personal reflection as an optimal tool for professional growth. If we ask our students to reflect on their progress and growth, then as educators, we must do the same in order to enhance our own skills.”
Since research also shows that nearly half of our teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching, experienced educators can also help support their colleagues in a number of ways. Mr. Wiggins suggests, “Continue to support their professional growth after the first year of teaching. They are assigned mentors in during their first year, but some may still need mentors and support even after the first year of teaching. Next, help them to establish networks for support groups with time to share and discuss their issues in a non-threatening environment. Sometimes, they can help each other by simply sharing their concerns, frustrations, and/or needs with each other in a guided setting. New teachers also need multiple opportunities to observe experienced teachers to assimilate knowledge and maintain the framework for professional development. It might be highly effective to schedule reflective conferences following these observations so the knowledge gained can be discussed and applied appropriately. Finally, ensure that timely and credible feedback is provided in accordance with all professional teaching standards. This is a shared responsibility among teachers and administrators.”
Mahwish “Mev” McIntosh is a teacher evaluator for the Berkeley County School District. She taught high school English Language Arts at Goose Creek High School for 12 years prior to her current position. She is currently an Emerging Leader for the SC ASCD and advocates for educators and students through her work with the SC ASCD and the Charleston Area League of Women Voters. She will attend the LILA Conference in Washington, DC to speak with her state lawmakers on the importance of supporting the Whole Child Initiative and the recently published 2015-2016 Collaborative Agenda for Pre K-12 Public Education in South Carolina, as outlined by a number of credible, professional educational organizations in her great state.