Thursday, July 8, 2010

What makes teachers great? (survey data)

I spent a lot of time last month thinking about what it is that makes teachers great. My graduate schooling focuses on the value of instructional design--which is to say that we're primarily concerned with the curriculum rather than its delivery. The actual concept gets a lot fuzzier than that, but there it is.

I really believe in the power of teachers, though. Although it makes me crazy when teachers claim credit for their students' accomplishments (we need to avoid the savior complex, folks), I think that good teachers offer truly marvelous gifts to their students. I had a few teachers who fundamentally altered the way I saw my place in the world, and at least one who saved my life. For Mr. Bryan Thompson, my first-grade teacher, I offer this thanks: I would probably not be here today if it weren't you. Thank you.

In thinking about teachers like Mr. Thompson, I started wondering: what is it that students value in their teachers? Is it the same thing that school boards value? See, teaching is a funny thing. We rely on teachers to offer us all kinds of subject knowledge, but some of them seem to go further and share wisdom or hope or compassion or something more than the simple result of focused intelligence. Some of them change more than our brains. How do they do it?

I trace the path of my life through several branching points where a truly great teacher helped me find my own way. I wondered if other students shared this sense of having been "guided" by their teachers, not in the sense of "guidelines" that we have to follow, but of a "guide book" that shows us what's possible.

So I created this survey. I was surprised by how quickly the responses came in--it turns out that people love to talk about their favorite teachers! (I was also surprised to learn that SurveyMonkey starts charging you money after you receive a certain number of responses). The results surprised me.

Caveats, disclaimers, and it's-not-our-faults
The survey is not perfect. I did the best I could with it, but I have not yet taken research methods or statistics. I tried to reduce bias in the questions, but it's imperfect. I'm also not going to show you all the free-text responses directly, since people wrote some astonishingly personal things about themselves. So the analysis on that stuff is mine.

Also, if reading this analysis ruins your life (or makes you want to become a teacher), it's not my fault. Srsly.

Survey design
Method. The survey was conducted using SurveyMonkey, a free Internet-based tool that allows, well, free surveys. It provides rudimentary statistics (deeper ones are available for a fee) and allows the tracking of individual responses (i.e., it's possible to see each respondent's answers to all the questions, separately).

I tried to eliminate bias in the phrasing of questions, and also tried to make sure that choices were similar in scope and tone. I also set the survey to randomize the presentation order of most choices. Some questions allowed free-text "Other (please specify)" options. 

Confounding variables. I posted the survey address to my Facebook profile and asked my friends to fill it out and then share it with their friends. Initially, most respondents were first-order friends of mine. As time drew on, more and more responses came from nth-order friends (those with distant, unknown connections to me). The issue here is that I am not friends with a random distribution of people, nor are my friends. Some themes that run through my friends list: students at elite universities; musicians; actors; people who volunteer or work at crisis hotlines; backpacking aficionados; people who live in northern New York, Scotland, or Philadelphia. Make of this information what you will.

Survey data and analysis
In total, 111 people responded to the survey. SurveyMonkey will only let me see the results of the first 100 responses without paying a fee. Given the relatively small difference in responses, I am reluctant to pay--but I would be willing to buy in if people felt it was important, especially if they were willing to contribute to the cost. In any case, this analysis draws only on the first 100 responses (which means that all percentages are also raw counts).

Question 1 asked for simple demographic information. 66 people provided it; 34 chose to skip the question.

Question 2: Highest education level
2. What's your highest level of formal education?
  • Middle school (finished 8th grade): 0%
  • High school (finished 12th grade): 2%
  • Partial college/university: 12%
  • Associate's degree: 3%
  • Bachelor's degree: 24%
  • Partial graduate school: 8%
  • Master's degree: 30%
  • ABD doctoral studies: 5%
  • Doctoral degree: 10%
  • Post-doctoral studies: 1%
  • Other: 5%
Of the "Other" choices, one had an unusual doctoral degree, one had a pair of bachelor's degrees, one had partial medical school, one had partial college plus a professional degree, and one had a master's degree plus a lot of extra credits.

The interesting thing here is that our sample size is highly educated and, to my eye, unusually so. 57% of respondents have done some form of graduate education, which seems high for the general populace. There exists the possibility that this group of people holds especially passionate views about teachers, given its predilection for advanced education.

Question 3. Type of schools
3. Looking at your primary and secondary education (before college), what kind of schools did you attend? (check all that apply)
  • Public school (usually organized by geographic boundaries): 93%
  • Private school: 19%
  • Home schooling: 3%
  • Summer camps focused on a learning topic (music camp, sports camp, art camp, math camp, CTY, Scout camp, etc.): 25%
  • Other (please specify): 5%
Choices for "Other" included specialized forms of public schooling, foreign language schooling, Catholic school, and law-enforcement/military training.

The interesting thing here is that nearly everyone spent some time in public school. Since this is "check all", the totals add up to more than 100%. It would be interesting to see, in follow-up research, where the highest incidence of "really great teachers" occurs (in terms of school type) after normalizing the data for population size. I think a lot of us hold the belief that the best teachers are found in private schools, and that homeschooling isn't as focused on teachers. It would be interesting to see.

Question 4: Number of great teachers
4. Think back to the best teachers you've ever had. Think of the people who really changed your life in some way, or inspired you, or gave you the kick in the pants you really needed. They might be formal classroom teachers; they might be mentors; they might be employers; they might be neighbors. How many great teachers did you have BEFORE college?
  •  0: 1%
  • 1: 5%
  • 2: 18%
  • 3-5: 49%
  • 6-10: 18%
  • More than 10: 9%
This is a badly-designed question, because the intervals are different. My bad. Still, it's interesting that nearly everyone had at least one teacher they felt was "great", and that most (76%) had at least three great teachers. Note that the person who responded "0" went on to say that all her great teachers were in college.

I left this question deliberately open to interpretation because I wanted to isolate the variable (presented later) of what went into being a great teacher. This is just a count.

Question 5. What subjects great teachers teach
5. Thinking of those great teachers, what subjects did they teach? Alternatively, what was their field of expertise? Check as many as apply. If you had several great teachers, or your teachers had many specialties, check as many boxes as you like--but only think of the _really_ good teachers. 
  • Mathematics: 34%
  • Physical sciences (physics, chemistry, earth science, biology, etc.): 37%
  • Technology/shop class: 4%
  • Agriculture: 1%
  • Physical education/sports: 5%
  • Music (music performance, music history, etc.): 45%
  • Dance: 2%
  • Art (studio art, art history, etc.): 12%
  • Social studies/history/government: 44%
  • English: 57%
  • Economics: 3%
  • Foreign languages: 21%
  • Health: 2%
  • Elementary school (where you had the same teacher for every subject all year): 42%
  • Vocational skills: 2%
  • Religious studies: 4%
  • Extracurricular activities: 18%
  • Other (please specify): 15%
Choices for "Other" included college professors, home and careers (home economics) teachers, librarians, mentors, camp counselors, parents,  theatrical directors, journalism teachers, and martial arts instructors. I chose the options for this question by thinking of the different classes available in my pre-collegiate schools and then adding a few I knew other people had taken elsewhere.

Teachers everywhere, take heart! No matter what you teach, there is room for good teachers. Every category had at least one really great teacher in it, which was interesting given how few students take classes in, e.g., agriculture.  Remember, also, that these statistics are not normalized: I did not think to ask how many students took each class. So, for example, I can't tell whether English has a high percentage because English teachers are especially amazing or because everyone has to take English.

That said, I was surprised by the results here. I expected to see that "creative" disciplines like music and art would take the lion's share here, which probably reflects my own bias as an occasional music teacher. But the neat thing is that every field of study across a typical school had quite a few great teachers.

The top five: English (57%), music (45%), social studies/history/government (44%), elementary school (42%), and physical sciences (37%). Mathematics is just behind, with 34%.

To me, this says pretty clearly that, in the eyes of learners, great teaching is about the person, not the subject.

Question 6: What makes teachers effective
6. What was it about those teachers that made them so effective for you? Do you have a sense of why their messages really got through for you? Alternatively, what made the great teachers different from the mediocre ones? This question is optional, but I would love it if you would answer!

This was a free-text question, so I have no statistics to offer you. A few general themes emerged, though, and I'll present them with quotations from respondents.

"What made it exceptional was their love for what they were doing". "The positive energy they gave out and obvious sense of wanting students to succeed." "Teachers that found a way to challenge me." ". . . it was simply teachers that demanded my own thought and effort to the practice . . . in order to be successful." "She had faith in me." "She gave me confidence and the where-withall to ask why? I don't think I had a real 'Me' personality before her."

"They were creative, enthusiastic and passionate... And had a great sense of humor" ". . . took extra time with the kids that needed it. They sacrificed their time, to make sure that the kids knew the material before moving on with the rest of the work." "I think she tricked us into thinking that [subject] was easy." "No one ever felt stupid in her room." "They went out of their way to help me." "Because of his encouragement, I am a [professional] today."

"Teachers who enjoy teaching can make learning magical." "They were both curmudgeons. They didn't bend over backward to make the class 'enjoyable' for every single person, but if you invested time/attention you would get a lot out of their classes." "Great teachers challenge you to leave your comfort zone." "They responded to the unique in me." "My great teachers held us up to high standards, [and] gave praise only when it was due". "The great teachers saw that I was bored and preoccupied, rather than disrespectful or 'bad'." "They were also fearlessly quirky, and had great senses of humor." 

"They didn't just teach the subject content, they taught about life. They were able to put the content aside when necessary and teach life lessons - while they were passionate about their subject, they knew that there was life beyond it." "I could always tell the difference between a teacher who was there because it was their 'job' and a teacher that was there because they really loved to teach and cared if they made a difference."

If you're a teacher, you've probably spent some time wondering whether it really matters how hard you try, and wondering whether your students notice. They do. Really. The responses for this question were 20 pages long, and I wish I could share them all with you. Students notice, they care, and they remember for their entire lives. It matters.

I find it interesting that, although I didn't impose any structure on the responses, they fell into broad categories that pretty much mirrored my later questions. One general theme that wove through a lot of responses was the concept of treating students as whole people: learners who also have to live in the world, who are trying to puzzle it out, and who need sturdy guides. Respect is a pretty big theme in many responses, as is love. Love is a dangerous word in schools these days, but we seem to need it--and it seems like we withhold it at some peril. Note that I'm not advocating anything untoward here--I'm just saying that we seem hungry for the knowledge that our teachers care about us.

Question 7: Influence on profession
7. Was your choice of profession (or direction of study) directly influenced by one of those great teachers?
  • Yes, and I chose to do what they do: 33%
  • Yes, even though I chose to follow a different path: 32%
  • No, they didn't influence my decision: 19%
  • Other (please specify): 16%
Choices for "Other" included people who don't yet have professions, those who weren't certain,  a substantial number of people who chose their path based on college professors, and those who chose their path based on all their great teachers, not just one.

Depending on how you count the "Others", we see somewhere between 65% and 81% of respondents choosing their life directions based on a few great teachers. That's a pretty hefty impact. Follow-up studies might explore what people mean when they say that someone influenced their decision, and what that means in terms of actions.

Question 8: What matters most
8. This is a total cheap-shot question, and it's exactly the kind that we all hate survey designers for writing. Sorry. Assume for the sake of discussion that all teachers are adequately qualified to teach their subjects, meaning that they possess adequate subject expertise and sufficient teaching ability to convey that expertise in a classroom. Above and beyond that, which of these qualities is MOST important for a truly great teacher? (i.e. which of these best differentiates great teachers from adequate ones?)
  •  Mastery of the subject (as evidenced by knowledge): 3%
  • Mastery of the subject (as evidenced by advanced degrees): 0%
  • Visible excitement about/passion for the subject: 42%
  • Strong personal rapport with students: 27%
  • Ability to provide instruction that reaches most students: 13%
  • Other (please specify): 15%
Most people who chose "Other" used it to get around the question's "choose only one" requirement, and most of those selected both passion for the subject and personal rapport with students. Some went on to state that it doesn't work if teachers "try too hard" to seem passionate, while others focused on meeting each student's needs (which is basically 'instruction that reaches most students').

Wordiest. question. ever.  Seriously, I should have made the question shorter. But there it is.

I think it's fascinating that visible excitement about the subject trashes all other options, especially when we consider the variety of subjects taught (Question 5). Not only do we love the music teacher who's out gigging on the weekends, but we also love the chemistry teacher who's giggling in the corner as she makes baking soda volcanoes, the math teacher who runs a website on how to solve brain teasers, the history teacher who publishes analyses of thirteenth-century combat tactics, and the gym teacher who plays five sports and coaches six more. We love teachers who show us something of themselves, who make it obvious why they chose this profession.

And we love teachers who connect with us on a personal level. We don't seem to care as much about whether they're geniuses in their subjects, although several people expressed scorn for teachers who didn't seem to know their craft and, e.g., gave credit for history papers about fictitious battles between countries that don't exist. But subject area knowledge seems like a sufficiency condition, not a demand in itself.

This question forced people to rank their priorities, which was uncomfortable for many people. I got a number of nasty emails for making people choose. Whatever else it shows, it seems clear that we rank the "soft" skills (passion and personal connection) vastly higher than the "professional" ones, at least when it comes to separating the truly great teachers from the rest of the flock.

I'm fascinated by the results, and I would love to study this more. I expected that visible excitement would be important, but I had no idea it would be such a clear winner. I wonder how we measure it. How do you tell whether I care about my subject? Is it the same way someone else would figure it out? How did those teachers establish a good rapport with students? I teach crisis counseling and suicide intervention in my day job, which means that I spend a good part of my professional life teaching people how to establish rapport. Should I be offering to help teachers keep that skill polished?

Lots of teachers wonder whether their work really matters--it's so hard to know whether we're doing a good job, especially since our "products" tend to move around and defy categorization. For 100 Facebook users, it seems like teachers really did matter. Every one of us had a teacher who fundamentally changed some aspect of our lives for the better.

So what do the results mean we should do differently? You're free to make your own choices about that, but for me? I'm going to make sure I show my students why I care so much about teaching them. I'm going to tell them why I turned down more lucrative job opportunities so I could share what I know. And I'm going to keep making it a priority to know them on a personal level.

Did you learn something from this? Tell me! Leave a comment on the blog, or email me at hollis easter at g mail dot com. Have some ideas for the next thing to study? Let's hear 'em! I would love to see whether the same results hold true for a larger data set. If you're interested too, let's see if we can find funding to make it happen. It won't take a lot of money.

I think these results are pretty interesting, and I hope you do too! Pass the link on to a teacher you know, or post it to your Facebook page. Let's talk.

There was one really neat side effect of this project. A lot of respondents wrote in afterward and told me that the survey gave them the push they needed to go thank those teachers who meant so much to them. There's a challenge there for us all: to give thanks for the gifts others offered us. I'm going to work on doing it more; will you join me?

Finally, I triple-dog-dare someone to cite this research in an academic paper.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Thanks so much for doing this research! I have been heavily influenced by the "great" teachers of my life, and - being a professor myself - it was a great learning experience to reflect on what it was that made those teachers great. It was also interesting to reflect on who those "great" or influential teachers were - most of them were from my public school growing up, not from the elite university, graduate school, or law school I attended. We have also been blessed to have our children have a couple great teachers at the elementary school level - the key to all of it is knowledge and passion. I saw my words quoted in your blog, and I appreciate that you found my sentiment to be a common theme in your responses. Thanks again for this research... It was helpful, interesting and insightful. Now, I must go grade some papers... :)

  2. Beautifully analyzed Hollis! Thanks for sharing your results and thoughts. It's certainly interesting as both a teacher and a learner to think about these things. I often bemoan that I'm not funny enough, or charismatic enough or that I don't tell good enough stories. It seems like those weren't themes of what people loved about good teachers, but then again there wasn't a questions quite addressing that issue. Thanks again for all of your thoughts!

  3. From the "Acknowledgements" page of my Ph.D. dissertation in Educational Administration and Foundations: "And now the acknowledgements untraditional. I should like to thank Mrs. Sally Souder who taught me twelveth grade English and opened a world of possibilities and ideas. Also to be remembered is Dr. Benito Brancaforte who introduced me to Spanish literature and nurtured my intellectual curiosity."

  4. For a bit of insight, I selected "Ability to provide instruction that reaches most students" for Q8 based on my experience as a 1-on-1 adult literacy teacher (part-time, volunteer) of several years. It's important for me, in this postion, to quickly find out the unique learning style of my student and adjust my material to them individually. I know this is much more difficult in a classroom setting.

  5. Leslie Ann: I'm thinking strongly about doing some follow-up studies to see where people's experiences with great teachers happened--in what context and venue. Your comment makes me even more interested! Thanks for your help, and I hope it was all right to share your comments!

    Jasmine: First off, thanks so much for giving me the impetus to start asking these questions. I'm also interested in following up on what it is that makes people feel that teachers are passionate (and engaged). What ideas do you have for how we could ask those questions?

    Felix: I assume you shared your dissertation (or at least its dedication page) with those teachers--how did they respond?

    Rebecca: That's a good point, and I wonder how many people straddled the fence between "strong rapport with students" and "ability to provide instruction that reaches most students" because of situations like yours. Would be interesting to see.

    What do you see in terms of "learning styles"? At least in the educational psychology literature, "learning styles" are kind of out of vogue right now, and I'm interested to see how people use them out in the real world.

    For all: I wanted to keep the survey to less than 5 minutes so it wouldn't be an undue burden for respondents. How important was that, do you think? Would you have filled out a longer survey? Did you appreciate this one's brevity?

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