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12 Touchstones

Often, schools mired in low performance feel as if they could just hit upon
some new insight, strategy, or approach that has been eluding them, they could
be more successful. Yet when my McREL colleagues and I visit schools, we often
find ourselves telling them something quite different:  “The answers are in the room.”

Most schools don’t need someone to parachute in with a bold new idea or
insight; the things that research says works are usually already being done by
someone, somewhere in the building. What schools really need to do is simply
find their own bright spots, share them, and encourage others to do what great
educators know works well.

I was reminded of that when earlier this month when I had the privilege of speaking to teachers from Madison City Schools in Alabama. My talk was preceded (and admittedly, upstaged) by presentations from the district’s teachers of the year, Cindy Rhodes and Amy Thaxton.

Ms. Rhodes, a 25-year veteran teacher, offered a top 10 list of tips for new teachers, which included such sage advice as “Always have a plan – and just in case that plan doesn’t work, have a backup,” “Greet your kids every day at the door,” and “Tell [your students] you have faith in them and they will learn to have faith in themselves.”

Ms. Thaxton was introduced by a former student who praised her ability to connect with students. She showed a short excerpt from a TED talk given recently by teacher Rita Pierson, who told her audience, “One of the things we never discuss, or we rarely discuss, is the value and importance of human connections” in learning. In some teachers’ eyes, she said, worrying about student-teacher relationships is just a “bunch of

As she recounts, “A colleague said to me one time, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson, the kids should learn it. I should teach it. They should learn it. Case closed.’” Ms. Pierson responded, “Kids
don’t learn from people they don’t like.’”

These teachers are spot on in sizing up what educators can do to help kids learn. Decades of research point to the importance of setting a high bar for them (having faith in them), connecting with kids (as Ms. Thaxton clearly
does), and being intentional about what we do in the classroom (as Ms.Rhodes does with her plans and back-up plans).

In our new book, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, my co-author Elizabeth Ross Hubbell and I call out a dozen big ideas that, when employed every day, hold the promise of helping teachers and their students succeed. While we found these ideas in research journals, we know their true source: passionate, insightful, and dedicated teachers who found better ways to teach. At some point, a researcher came along and studied them to prove what teachers already knew: that these things really work.

What really works in your classrooms? What big ideas or bright spots should researchers be paying attention to now?

Goodwin_200x200Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12
Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day
, he
wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Deviled Egg says:

    It is refreshing to see an educator talking about what can be done to help children feel safe and secure in their learning environment, so that they will want to and be able to learn.
    I first heard this in a workshop on salesmanship. I think it applies here as well:
    “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care. ” -John Maxwell ~

  • Shawn R Cunningham says:

    I completely agree with the human element that was mentioned. When teachers begin to make personal connections with the students, the students will begin to like, as well as listen, to them more. In the book What Keeps Teachers Going, Sonia Nieto (2006) speaks on writings by Mildred Dickerson that stated “only when teachers recognize their own “forgotten, repressed, or ignored” heritages, their own experiences and family histories, that they can begin to understand the students they teach” (p. 25). With that being said, it takes an understanding of one’s self to be able to properly connect with the students.
    Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.

  • Jason Simpson says:

    Bryan’s point here is well made. In my classroom, I strive to be the teacher I would want to have myself. Establishing relationships of trust and friendliness with students does more to help classroom management than any set of rules or punishments ever could.

  • Paisley13 says:

    I agree that making the effort and wanting to connect with your students is a necessity if you are an educator. It not only builds a trusting relationship, it helps students learn. I am blessed that our school allots time every week for us to connect with our students. Thank you for sharing.

  • Lana Allen says:

    I really appreciate the point made here in this article. When teachers take the time to establish a personal connection with their students first and foremost, it seems to be the more effective way to enable a trust and desire to learn. I always found myself more interested in listening to people who I could connect with and enjoyed.

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