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Great Teachers Don't Teach

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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In a conversation on LinkedIn, one person asked, "What are the characteristics of an effective teacher?" I read quite a few excellent remarks that describe what such a teacher does to be effective. I couldn't help thinking about some of my best teachers.

I had an amazing psychology professor in college. He was on fire every class period and his enthusiasm was contagious. But the things I remember most are the psychological experiments in which we participated. I remember every detail and the supporting theories because I experienced it.

My psychology professor was an effective teacher because he provided experiences that created long-term memories. In response to the LinkedIn comments, I penned the following:

"I appreciate all of the comments that have been made so far. Yet I feel there is one thing still missing. One characteristic of an effective teacher is that they don't teach. You say that is outrageous. How can an effective teacher teach without teaching?

My experience is that good teachers care about students. Good teachers know the content and know how to explain it. Good teachers expect and demand high levels of performance of students. Good teachers are great performers and storytellers that rivet their students' attention.

All of this is good but great teachers engineer learning experiences that maneuver the students into the driver's seat and then the teachers get out of the way. Students learn best by personally experiencing learning that is physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. John Dewey had it right in 1935 when he espoused his theories on experiential learning. Today we call this constructivism.

In The Classroom

Long past are the times when we teach content just in case a student might need it. A great teacher will devise a way to give the students an urgent reason to learn skills or knowledge and then let them show they have learned it by what they can do. This is called project-based learning.

A great teacher will keep the students wanting to come to school just to see what interesting things they will explore and discover each day. We call this inquiry.

The philosophy that supports such a great teacher is simple. Students learn best when they are in control of their learning. Students must do the heavy lifting of learning and nothing the teacher can say or do will change that. Real learning requires doing, not listening, or observing only. Yet what do we find in every public school and university? Teachers talking, talking and talking while students listen, daydream and doze. We call this lecture.

The word "teacher" implies the flow of knowledge and skills from one person to another. Whether it be a lecture, or a power point, it involves talking at the students. While that is commonly viewed as the quickest and easiest way to impart knowledge and skills, we all realize that it is not the most effective. Socrates had it right when he only answered a question with more questions and look what he produced -- some of the greatest minds that ever lived. We call this the Socratic method.

Yes, there are times when direct instruction is necessary, but only to be able to do something with that knowledge or skill, but a great teacher devises learning experiences that force all the students to be engaged much like being in the deep end of the swimming pool. Then the lesson on arm and leg strokes becomes relevant. To learn, the students must do something. We call this performance-based learning.

Taking Action

Returning to my original premise: great teachers do not teach. They stack the deck so that students have a reason to learn and in the process can't help but learn mainly by teaching themselves. This knowledge then becomes permanent and cherished rather than illusory and irrelevant.

In my book, Teaching Students To Dig Deeper: The Common Core in Action, I provide detailed ways to get students into the driver's seat and to get the teacher out of it. I also provide the teacher a reason to change the way they teach so they can in essence become let's say, "learning engineers" instead of "teachers."

How can you keep from teaching and promote true learning? Please share in the comment section below.


Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Excellent point. Reading in foundational to all academic learning. You are right, the ability to look at abstract symbols on a page and turn them in to sound and words and meaning is nothing short of miraculous. We humans have a knack for the miraculous. Just the fact that I can type without looking at my fingers is amazing. I listen to my daughter play the piano, and she doesn't look at her fingers, playing at least four notes at the same time, and she sings while she does it-- that is truly marvelous. When trying new teaching methods is like me trying to play the piano, painful at first, but as I stick with it, I gain the fluency born of practice, and it gets easier and I become more effective. The same can be said of students learning how to learn...just keep at it and it gets better.
Best Regards,
Ben Johnson
San Antoniio, Texas

Michele's picture
High School English teacher, graduate student

I like your piano analogy. It is difficult to implement a new teaching method. I struggle between knowing when to give a new idea enough time to work or cutting my loses and trying something different (or reverting to an old method.) Perhaps if I had waited, my students and I would have achieved that fluency that comes from practice.

Richard A. Watt's picture

Hello Ben and fellow educators: Please forgive the length of my comments below. But, how the Congress has screwed up again by playing partisan politics with Federal education policy, and at the same time teachers across our country are literally under siege, I would like to share the following.
The citizens of this country need to recognize and speak out against the relentless blame and criticism directed at our teachers who exist at the bottom of the educational food chain. It is the powerful bureaucrats at the top of the food chain who bear direct responsible for all failed policies, and the countless costly revisions that also fail to fix the problems. Politicians and high-level bureaucrats demonstrate little concern over wasted taxpayer dollars and the only accountability citizens can impose is with their vote. However, as a political scientist and retired high school history teacher, I regret that our political system is at a point where when it comes to public policy issues of the greatest importance, it does not seem to matter whether one votes for a republican or democrat, the outcome is the same old same old.
In April 2011, a Sun Sentinel article exposed a pattern of harassing and unprofessional treatment from school administrators experienced by teachers in Palm Beach County Florida. As a former teacher and resident of Connecticut, I frequently receive information from colleagues and associates regarding public school teachers in nearby school districts who are being subjected to harassment and unprofessional treatment similar to that experienced by teachers in Palm Beach County, Florida. Unfortunately, teachers in some Connecticut school districts belong to unions that do not advocate as aggressively for their members as the union in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Below are excerpts from the April 2011 Sun Sentinel article entitled: "Palm Beach County teachers charge principals with rampant intimidation."
Palm Beach County public school principals are intimidating and harassing teachers in "alarmingly rampant" numbers that pose a serious threat to student achievement, union President Debra Wilhelm says.
The Classroom Teachers Association has learned from its members that workplace intimidation is a "systemic" problem and "nothing seems to be being done to alleviate this behavior", Wilhelm told the School Board.
Superintendent Wayne Gent's administration responded Thursday with a promise to investigate the claims and said it "welcomes any constructive suggestions" to address the matter.
"All complaints will be fully investigated and where evidence of inappropriate behavior exists, such as threats and intimidation, appropriate disciplinary and corrective actions will continue to be taken," spokesman Nat Harrington said.
The union wants a new school district task force to work with teachers on developing training for principals, aimed at changing the "culture" that permits some principals to act with an "almost dictatorship attitude."
"We want to help administrators learn appropriate behaviors to work with their staff so teachers no longer teach each day in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation and bullying directed to them," Wilhelm said.
The union said "this abhorrent behavior" is widespread but did not offer specifics, because a "pattern of power, domination and fear keeps teachers from speaking out."
Districts are not required to keep such data. But some of the general examples cited include: teachers being ordered to give up planning time and personal time to cover additional duties or classes or activities beyond what is provided in their contract; and being assigned tasks with "impossible deadlines, or inundated with even more forms to complete."
"Some teachers are being told, 'If you can't put in long hours, weekends and summers, then you should find another school,'" Wilhelm said.
While student bullying usually gets more publicity, cases of adult-to-adult or workplace intimidation in schools are reportedly increasing across the nation. Unions blame pressure from new education laws, including a revamped teacher evaluation system required by the state, and personal financial worries.
Adult bullying usually takes on the same forms of student bullying, with teasing, intimidation, physical violence, and sexual, religious, or racial harassment. Yet workplace intimidation of teachers adds the extra danger of affecting students, because unmotivated teachers may not give it their all.
"If a teacher is so demoralized, they might even give up and do their job without motivation," Wilhelm has said.
In its latest call for action, the union asked the School Board to "publicly condemn" the actions of the principals, which the union states is worse than epidemic.
Our public school teachers are under siege, and far too many school districts allow administrators to wrongfully persecute good teachers and poison the educational environment of our children.
Most people outside the education profession have difficulty believing how pervasive and concealed teacher harassment and intimidation has become. During my tenure as a teacher, the number of incidents and circumstances of wrongful treatment of teachers that I witnessed provided a quantity of information sufficient to publish another book.
Below is another recent example of how failed federal and state education policy continues to foster increasingly hostile work environments for public school teachers and high-pressure school climates forced upon our children.
Taken together with the information above, excerpts below from a May 31, 2013 article written by a parent in Tredyffrin township, served by the Easttown School District in eastern Chester County, Pennsylvania, should convince you that failed federal and state education policy have changed the school environments we experienced as students, into war zones for teachers and pressure cookers for students.
The troubling stories of intimidation by the TE School District administration continue, as does the School Board's silence regarding this issue. After "As I See It: Tredyffrin Easttown School District ... Intimidation to Silence" appeared in Main Line Suburban, I received additional phone calls and emails from former and current District employees, describing our schools as a workplace which seeks to control and silence. A former TE teacher wrote, "Employees have noted for years that they felt bullied and targeted when raising any questions or concerns regarding building and/or programming changes." From a current District aide, "The negativity and lack of respect from the administration is always present."
What is really going on behind the walls of our schools - the morale continues to plummet but other than bringing awareness to the problem, there is no indication that anything is changing or that anyone on the School Board is actually listening. Disappointingly, there has been no response to either of the two emails sent to School Board President Kevin Buraks in regards to this matter. Some may suggest that Buraks does not respond because he is in re-election campaign mode and does not want to risk his quotes appearing on Community Matters. If that is the case, I wonder what excuse is offered for not responding to the concerns of other School District residents. How about a press release suggesting that the School Board is addressing employee concerns and claims of intimidation? The employees need to know that their contributions are valued and that they have a right to a working environment free from harassment and intimidation.
There are examples of intimidation and low morale of the employees from all areas of the District -- the kitchen staff, the custodians, the aides and the teachers. Large segments of the employee community feel disconnected from the District leadership; leaving them to question why the School Board seemingly does not care. How do the members of the School Board rationalize and not react to what District employees are saying? I will say it again, this is not some isolated, disgruntled employee looking for attention, but rather the new reality of what it means to be a TE School District employee. Respect and support should be commonplace on the education ladders of TE schools, regardless of whom you are or whom you know.
There's no magic wand to make this simmering problem within our schools disappear. Increasing awareness suggests that our award-winning TE School District needs a thorough internal examination and review to look at what is really going on inside our school walls.

I experienced the types of treatment revealed in these two articles when I taught social studies at the high school level for the Stratford Connecticut Public School District. It has been nearly three years since I resigned and nothing has changed. The climate in the district is so bad, our former superintendent of 20+ years as well as a highly respected member of our community, wrote a letter to the editor of a few local newspapers calling on the Board of Education to put an end to this madness. Everyone in town heard about and no doubt read the former superintendent's letter, yet aside from a few personnel changes, no meaningful change has occurred.
The Board members do not have the expertise to challenge the current superintendent and other district administrators so they just turn a blind eye. Sadly, it is the students and the teachers who are being intimidated by administrators who repeatedly lie or distort the facts and their fellow administrators back them up.
I was brought up to believe that one's good reputation was essential and valuable, and to have a moral and ethical compass to direct the decisions throughout my life.
This is an appropriate place to close, as far too many administrators in my former school district appear to know nothing about the value of a good reputation or the need to have a moral and ethical compass. Each day they play with peoples lives and careers as if it were just a big game.
Thanks to All for enduring the abundance of good news I shared above. Rich

zep's picture
Education Specialist

The Florida case is a classic "right to work" state story wherein unions are absolutely powerless; there is a strong message here to unify us in our denunciation of right to work laws which leave teachers and other working class citizens powerless. The others are inexcusable, time for a work stoppage?

Michele's picture
High School English teacher, graduate student

I bet a vast majority of teachers in Palm Beach County and Tredyffin Easttown District would report that these incidents are isolated and not even close to their own experiences as educators. Nothing you said has anything to do with innovative practices in the classroom. Richard, your best argument is for a wiki which limits the number of characters available for comments.

Richard A. Watt's picture

Michele, I get a strong sense from the tenor of your remarks that you believe that for the most part all is well with the education profession. Many years ago, I would have agreed with you, however, the reprehensible behavior of the administrators in Pennsylvania and Florida have become so pervasive that sooner or later teachers, unions, and legislators are going to have to acknowledge the seriousness of this nationwide problem and take swift and meaningful action to permanently correct the problem.
The strange thing about these instances of administrator misbehavior is that they generally involve good teachers, which makes no sense at all. I will close with the short family story. I taught Social Studies for 15 years at the high school level in Connecticut and hold current administrator certification. Despite excellent valuations and commendations but during my tenure, between 2009 and 2011 I was harassed to the point where I resigned my position. Why? Because one of the superintendent's favorite minions had a girlfriend whose husband needed a job. I was the senior teacher and highest paid in the department, hence the word went out to pin the tail on my donkey.
As a certified administrator, I knew exactly what was going on and I could have fought it, however by that point I did not care anymore. My oldest daughter has taught math for 11 years at the same high school that I had and has a master's in special education. Last year, she abruptly quit and was immediately offered a position in Maine, which she accepted. She came to me in tears because we had been colleagues in the same high school for many years, but she said Dad, I cannot go in there every day and watch what the administration is doing to a faculty of such good teachers. She said I have to get out before I lose my passion. My youngest daughter taught at a high school a few towns away for three months and resigned. My wife was furious however, I totally understood. She quickly finished a masters in speech and language pathology and now lives in Louisiana, owns her own business and trains new SPL's for two local hospitals.
Keep your eyes open Michele; it is only a matter of time before the kinds of things I am talking about begin to happen in your school district.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Quote attributed to Edmund Burke, however, scholars continue to have difficulty proving that Burke actually said those exact words.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Richard Watt:

What a bleak picture you paint of our public school systems! Rather than vent about what you feel is wrong, what suggestions do you have to improve it?

By the way, I am an administrator, and in order to become so, I had to first be a teacher... and I never stopped being a teacher. Administrators are not the "enemy". Neither are politicians. Although you are not in public education anymore, I would appreciate any suggestions on how to improve teaching and learning that you may have.
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Katie's picture

I agree that the first step for recovery is to admit that we have a problem. Teachers are still respected for their knowledge and wisdom in many communities but that respect is being compromised because we are not allowed to respectfully and professionally tell the truth. We are expected to support the district rhetoric with half-truths- "We are not teaching to the test. We have aligned our curricula with the objectives of the test." So the parents in our community are surprised to hear about the conditions under which we work when one of us finally has the courage- or has gotten to the point where speaking out won't make the working conditions worse.

I am speaking out but am worried about the ramifications of joining this conversation. I agree with the idea that we have to be part of the solution and not just have gripe sessions. However, we can only create solutions once the problems are accurately identified.

Richard A. Watt's picture

Katie: Congratulations for having the courage to acknowledge and speak the truth. I would enjoy discussing these issues further but not by taking up more space on this blog.
Please contact me directly via email to email at and I will reply.
Thanks for understanding.........Rich

Linda's picture

Why do we try to make the words "teach" and "teacher" derogatory?

I take issue with the way you have used the words teach and teacher in "Great Teachers Don't Teach". You imply that teachers are those who impart knowledge by lecturing or "direct instruction." As a teacher, lecture is only one of many tools that I use to impart knowledge. Providing students with creative, interesting, differentiated, and well facilitated learning opportunities is as much teaching as lecturing.

Teachers are wonderful, disciplined, educated, hard working, caring professionals who make a difference in the world. We can and should acknowledge that not all teachers need to teach in the same way! There are teachers who are incredible lecturers (whose students learn despite the direct instruction), others who are incredible facilitators, some are wizard at the student lead classroom and there are those who inspire students beyond what the student believes he/she can do. All are teachers. And is that a bad thing?

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