“Honey, what are you studying in class this week?”
“That sounds fun.”
“I guess.”
“What else is happening?”
“Miss Beal is benching everyone all the time.”
“Oh really? Why?”
“I dunno.”

So goes those dinner conversations in a million households where parents attempt to pry out details from the hidden lives of their children at school. We parents want to hear about our children’s learning. But if you’re anything like me, there’s an ulterior motive: You’re curious about the teacher. Is she good, bad, or exceptional? Does he hold kids accountable? Does she really know my child?

In my patchwork career, I’ve taught a veritable smorgasbord of topics — from cooking classes for preschoolers to reading remediation for high school dropouts. Brimming with enthusiasm and little else, I’d always assumed I rocked the classroom, never thinking too hard about just how little I thought about teaching.

Then I became a parent, and the usual pageant of educators paraded through our family, leaving thumbprints all over my daughters’ psyches. Teachers, I realized, were the great influencers over the most precious thing in my life: my kids. And just as wonderful teachers suddenly seemed immensely powerful, the dangers of an awful one loomed equally large.

Recent studies bear this out. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek has found that students with a teacher in the top 5% gained a year and a half’s worth of learning, while students with teachers in the bottom 5% learned only half a year’s worth of material. In a study of Tennessee teachers, statistician William Sanders discovered that after three consecutive years, students with low-performing teachers scored 50 percentile points behind similar students with high-performing teachers.

But here’s the rub: Would I really know a great teacher if I saw one?

The parent-teacher trap

How could I know if my daughters’ teachers were worth their union dues? Was it enough for my kids to like their teachers? If my daughters were bored in class, whose fault was it?

A recent experience underscored my difficulty assessing teachers. One of my daughter’s teachers carried out a disciplinary measure the kids referred to as the “walk of shame”: The misbehaving child was forced to walk around the class while the other students glowered and scowled to induce maximal guilt.

This exercise seemed twisted enough to warrant writing a letter of complaint to the school district, which I did to support the more upset parents. But I didn’t storm the principal’s office to get her into another class or even confront the teacher. The irony was that my child — who was never subjected to the walk of shame — seemed to thrive in this class.

Over the years, I’ve realized that I don’t know enough to assess my children’s teachers one way or another. I’ve always gone with my personal taste. I admired the “creative” teachers who wrote operas about space aliens, or the “observant “ones who noticed my kids’ special talents. Then there were those who gave me pause — the one who constantly joked about retiring, the one who confused my daughter’s reading issues with those of her best friend.

But couldn’t my taste in teachers say more about my comfort zone than my children’s learning? What if I were to stop relying on my parental instinct about great and not-so-great teachers? Was there a way to identify the qualities that go into an outstanding educator?

Art into science

Once the elusive art of teaching occupied the soft world of the humanities. Now it’s the object of intense scientific study, or at least a whole mess of “data-driven” research. In an attempt to bring objectivity to the arguments around educational reform, researchers are trying to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of something they call “highly effective teaching.”

For several years Teach for America (TFA), the much-ballyhooed organization that has trained some 27,000 college graduates to teach in low-performing schools nationwide, has been analyzing its teachers based on their behaviors and effectiveness. The result is Teaching as Leadership, a new book by TFA’s Steven Farr, which outlines the winning recipe that allows some of its teachers to accelerate their children’s learning (sometimes by as much as two grade levels in a single year) while others do not.

In a nutshell, the organization’s definition of a great teacher is as unassailable as it is unsustainable for mere mortals. According to TFA’s model, highly effective teachers: (1) set high expectations, (2) recruit every child and their family in the endeavor, (3) plan carefully, (4) execute precisely, (5) continuously “increase effectiveness,” and, as if this were not enough, (6) “work relentlessly.”

No doubt there is much more of this research to come. Earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched MET — Measures of Effective Teaching— the largest research project of its kind to date. Over the next two years, MET seeks to identify the behavior and activities of highly effective teaching and the best ways to measure teacher performance.

At a macro level, teacher-effectiveness research aims to change the way our educators are trained, hired, retrained, and fired. And frankly it still has a way to go before the findings are widely accepted or even proven. Because the definition of “highly effective teaching” is predicated on assessing teachers based on student performance (as measured by standardized tests), the research remains rife with controversy.

Still, as parents, systematic research into how some rock-star teachers manage to pull up their classes two whole grade levels will no doubt inform our expectations of our children’s education. And for the curious parent, the new research offers a treasure trove of useable material.

Bite-size teaching techniques

By far, the most useful fodder from the emerging field of “teacher effectiveness” comes from Doug Lemov’s Teaching Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.

To be clear, Lemov hasn’t conducted double-blind experimental studies — something that could and should now be done to test whether his observations are correct. What he has done is analyze the behavior of the best teachers at Uncommon Schools, a group of successful charter schools in New Jersey and New York that serve mostly low-income, urban children.

His perspective is breathlessly simple but devilishly detailed. According to Lemov, great teachers use repetitive classroom-management techniques to make optimal use of every moment, implement high expectations, and differentiate learning. Based on his observations, Lemov has carefully described these techniques to show how, taken as a whole, they empower teachers to reach more students at a variety of levels and still keep the focus of the class.

What makes the book (and the accompanying video clips of teachers demonstrating the techniques with real students) so riveting is that it captures the detailed craft of teaching from its most banal (how to call on kids in class — see “cold call” in the sidebar) to its most elevated form (how to inject joy into your lesson plan — see “the J factor”). Exceptional teachers draw from a shared bag of tricks (as developed by the charter schools where they teach), but taken together they offer a powerful picture of what it takes to keep a class fully engaged in learning every moment of the day.

Lemov’s observations on great teaching offer an inspiring, if sometimes painful, reminder of what engaged learning can look like (and how some teachers don’t have the requisite classroom-management skills, high standards, or planning skills to accomplish this). Watching Lemov’s teachers at work is breathtaking and, if your child isn’t blessed with a teacher with such skills, a little heartbreaking too.

Reality check

Being able to recognize a great teacher is all good and fine. But since when do parents have any power over motivating, choosing, training, or hiring teachers? Isn’t that the province of the politicos, unions, and principals?

Sure, parental influence in the arena of teaching is limited. Still, parents influence teaching every day in many ways. We choose schools, we lobby principals to get certain teachers for our children, and we communicate and collaborate with teachers on projects. Though individually we don’t always get to handpick the perfect teachers for our kids, we do have the ability to affect standards around teaching every time we interact with teachers or principals. And taken together, the potential power of parental expectations about great teaching for our children is immeasurable.

At the very least, the new findings about great teaching show us one ideal. It may not be enough, but it’s a beginning.