• by Hilaria Bauer, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 1999

My youngest daughter, Ariel, started third grade this year. As we were getting ready to transition from the carefree summer vacation into the school routine, my mind began to wonder about her new teacher. I wondered about this new person about to enter our lives. What kind of teacher will this person be? Will this individual understand the spirited nature of my 8-year-old? Will this person allow Ariel to be the class translator for recent immigrants in the class – fulfilling Ariel’s need to be useful without becoming the kid who wants to help the teacher all the time?

Ariel, on the other hand, had other concerns. She wondered if her teacher will read books to her, if the teacher will have fun activities, and if the new teacher will give the class something exciting to do. Even if our goals were slightly different, we both wanted a good teacher.

One of the priorities in President Clinton’s Call to Action for American Education in the 21st Century, states: “There will be a talented, dedicated and well-prepared teacher in every classroom.” The call to action also enlists a number of strategies designed to achieve this priority. The strategies include identifying and rewarding our most talented teachers, attracting talented young people into the teaching profession, and reinventing teacher preparation programs. The nation wants good teachers.

When most of us think about “good teaching,” we rarely think about someone’s credentials. Yet, intuitively we are able to identify characteristics that make a person a “good” teacher. Good teachers are always aware of two things:

  • There are different ways of learning.
  • There are different ways of teaching.

Teachers must be alert to the need for continually updating their teaching skills and practices (Wagschal, 1997). As teachers, we need to reflect on whom we teach and how we teach. Student learning does not happen when there is a mismatch between the two. Usually, we must adapt our teaching style. Good teachers understand what their students need to know. Education is not skills training. Education is the development of individual capacity and competency in the context of increasingly complex levels of content and meaningful activity. The skills children need – including children in poor communities and communities of color – must be delivered in a rich context through a curriculum that is rigorous, is relevant, and takes both the social context of schooling and students’ real lives as primary points of departure (Karp, 1997).

Effective instruction requires the teacher to step outside the realm of personal experiences into the world of the learner. It is the student who must be engaged for learning to occur. It is the student who must make the commitment to learn (Brown, 1997). One of the best ways to engage a student in a lesson is by connecting what needs to be taught to the student’s background, by making what needs to be learned relevant in the student’s mind and heart.

Learning occurs when prior knowledge is accessed and linked to new information. New information is understood and stored by calling up the appropriate knowledge framework and then integrating the new information (Jones, et al, 1987). Teachers need to be able to understand and value their students’ backgrounds and the “cultural capital” they bring to the classroom and to use these assets while guiding the class into new concepts.

Effective instruction provides different alternatives for student interaction. Students need opportunities to engage in role play and cooperative learning experiences (Solís, 1998). Knowing how to work cooperatively with others – to build on the knowledge and experiences of diverse people who bring different perspectives to the thinking and reasoning process – can help students to expand their thinking and explore new approaches to learning (Brown, 1997).

Using heterogeneous learning groups allows students who traditionally have been perceived as having “low-status” in the classroom to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise. For example, grouping English as a second language (ESL) students with native English speakers allows language learners the opportunity to demonstrate expertise in other areas as they acquire English (Cárdenas, 1995a; Cohen, 1986).

Effective instruction promotes creative and critical thinking. Students need the opportunity to reveal how they solve problems in a safe environment. Effective teachers are interested in nurturing the students’ thought patterns by allowing more than one way to do things or more than one way to answer a question, since real-life situations rarely have only one correct alternative.

Critical thinking abilities can be fostered by promoting transference with tasks that require students to intelligently adapt modifiable learning tools.

Reasoning determines students’ ability to transfer learning from one subject area to another, or from one situation to another (Hendricks, 1994).

Effective instruction values and promotes the students’ backgrounds. Good teachers understand how important it is to acknowledge students’ home language and culture and how eradication of them can be felt as dehumanizing. Examining school practices is critical so that teachers do not unintentionally promote tracking and segregation within the school and classroom. For example, students who are limited-English-proficient (LEP) are considered to be at risk of dropping out and, consequently, are perceived to be “deficient” and in need of “remediation” (Cárdenas, 1995b). Such perceptions of diverse students lowers teachers’ expectations, which in turn can compromise students’ potential for academic success (Trueba, 1997; Gonzales, 1996).

Good teachers facilitate and enhance the development of individual capacity and competency. They use a variety of meaningful activities to convey increasing levels of content. They appreciate their students’ cultural and intellectual assets, and they inspire a new generation to succeed. We all certainly need good teachers.

I am happy to report that after four months with her new teacher, Ariel is very excited about going to school. She is thrilled to share with me some of the wonderful experiences she lives in her classroom. I am excited too. Every week, I receive a “highlights of the week” page from her teacher in which she tells us in advance what will be happening in class the following week. I hope all children can have the same kinds of thrills in school.


Brown, B.L. “New Learning Strategies for Generation X,” ERIC Digest No. 184 (ED411414 97).
Online: http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/recordDetail?accno=ED411414

Cárdenas, J.A. “Bilingual Education in Heterogeneous Groups,” Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing, 1995).

Cárdenas, J.A. “VSP: Key to Minority Education,” Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing, 1995).

Cohen, E.G. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986).

Gonzales, F. Recognizing Cultural Differences in the Classroom (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1996).

Hendricks, B. “Improving Evaluation in Experiential Education,” ERIC Digest (ED376998 94).
Online: http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/recordDetail?accno=ED376998

Jones, B.F., and A.S. Palinscar, D.S. Ogle, E.G. Carr. Strategic Teaching and Learning: Cognitive Instruction in the Content Areas (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1987).

Karp, S. “Educating for a Civil Society: The Core Issue is Inequality,” Educational Leadership (February 1997) Vol. 54, No. 6.
Online: http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/recordDetail?accno=EJ539086

Solís, A. “Showcasing Exemplary Instructional Practices in Bilingual and ESL Classrooms,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 1998).

Trueba, E., and L.I. Bartolome. “The Education of Latino Students: Is School Reform Enough?” ERIC/CUE Digest (Number 123 ED 410367, July 1997). Online: http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/recordDetail?accno=ED410367

Wagschal, K. “I Became Clueless Teaching the GenXers,” Adult Learning (March 1997) Vol. 8, No. 4.

Hilaria Bauer, M.A., is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]