Five Habits of Highly Effective Teachers

What Makes Superstar Teachers Effective?

In this perceptive article in The School Administrator, Neil Bright of the State University of New York/New Paltz says, “What the very best teachers do to produce the best results from students is not some unknowable mystery.” Here is his list of the key factors that lead to classroom success:

Taking a wider view of student success – Highly effective teachers look beyond students’ test scores to their success in life. “This mindset changes everything,” says Bright. “When teachers acknowledge this without question, some common classroom practices become frivolous while others become instructional absolutes.” The most successful teachers don’t have students mindlessly learn irrelevant facts, complete word search puzzles, or memorize passages from textbooks. They have students do the kind of work that will truly prepare them for future success – creative writing, research, oral presentations, and persuasive essays.

Bright suggests thinking of curriculum as a series of filters: the first is state standards, the second is the school’s mission and purpose, and the third is whether the activity or assignment is beneficial to students. “Whatever concept, fact, or activity cannot pass through those filters should not be taught,” he says. 

Recognizing instruction as a performance – “At some level, teaching is a sales job,” says Bright. “Accordingly, how lessons are ‘sold’ is as important as the product itself.” Master teachers prepare for class the way an actor rehearses for a play, fine-tuning content knowledge, presentation, physical movement around the room, eye contact, and confidence to involve all students. 

Internalizing personal accountability – The very best teachers hold themselves accountable for student success – “If they fail, I fail.” What matters to them is not just the performance and the effort, but the results.

Understanding student motivation – “To foster learning, tasks must be both doable and important,” says Bright. “If tasks are doable but perceived as unimportant, few people will expend energy on such ‘trivial’ pursuits. And if assignments are important but not seen as doable, most people will give up rather than struggle with ‘impossible’ undertakings.” Rubrics, exemplars of excellent work, and step-by-step guides are essential in motivating students to do their best. Distributed practice is also key: “The common instructional approach of one-time cramming for unit tests and final exams results in learning that’s neither meaningful nor enduring,” says Bright. “For durable learning to occur, students must ‘overlearn’ material by recalling it on a regular, predictable and cumulative basis.” As for importance, the student’s gateway question is, “What’s in it for me?” It’s up to teachers to show exactly how the material matters to students’ lives.

A continuing focus on instructional improvement – “The best teachers have an insatiable appetite both for good student learning and for their own learning,” says Bright. “This is so because exceptional educators realize the more they learn, the more they recognize their own ignorance.” 

“Five Habits of Highly Effective Teachers” by Neil Bright in The School Administrator, October 2011 (Vol. 68, #9, p. 33-35),; Bright can be reached at

From the Marshall Memo #407

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