State of Our Schools – Top performing teachers share common attributes

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Tupelo High science teacher Teresa Ware gets charged up by hands-on learning in the chemistry lab and common planning time with her colleagues.
Saltillo Primary’s Sandra Magers has taught for 24 years but is constantly hunting for fresh techniques that will help her first-graders.
Pontotoc Middle teacher Angela Harris is combining her passion as a new teacher with the best practices to guide her fifth graders toward deeper learning.
These three education professionals were recommended to the Daily Journal as three of the many examples of excellent teaching in the region.
Excellent teaching is often singled out as the most important element for successful schools, but it comes in different styles, approaches and packages.
“One size does not fit all when it comes to teaching,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, which advocates for excellence in Mississippi schools.
However, there are universal attributes of excellent teachers, say Loome and several other Mississippi education experts. Attractive classroom bulletin boards aren’t on the list.
Teachers should be experts in the subject areas they’re teaching, education advocates say. The ability to grasp, master and communicate content is crucial.
“You can’t teach what you don’t know,” said Tom Burnham, who has led the Mississippi Department of Education and the University of Mississippi School of Education.
Some of these elements are in place in the state’s current requirements. For seventh through 12th grade, teachers must have a strong knowledge base in their content areas.
Although the elementary level teachers earn endorsements for particular areas, they aren’t required to match the same depth as their secondary counterparts.
Loome would like to see more depth for elementary teachers in a particular content area. The structure of elementary schools – where most educators teach all subjects – also needs to change to reflect more specialization.
“A first-grade math teacher needs to be an expert in math with a full understanding of all the complexities,” Loome said. “We think that’s really important.”
Part of the solution is increasing the academic requirements and attracting the best and brightest into teaching, and that work has begun.
“Internationally, top performing systems are attracting the top 10 percent of university students,” Burnham said. “If we increase the rigor, we’re going to have better teachers.”
Equally important is a passion for teaching and children.
“There are a lot of people who know their stuff who don’t have a passion for teaching,” Ole Miss Education Dean David Rock said. “That is an issue. We’ve got to find people who are passionate people.”
Unfortunately, there are people in the profession who come to realize they aren’t energized by working with children, Burnham said.
“They have to like children and have a personal motivation to see children succeed,” Burnham said.
That passion is what drives excellent teachers to spend hours digging through the curriculum, hunting down new teaching methods and staying current in their field.
Classroom management skills are essential, but in excellent teaching they extend beyond getting the rowdy kids to simmer down.
It’s creative ways to engage students in the content area.
“It’s making learning interesting and relevant,” Loome said.
Strong classroom management skills mean being ready for anything.
“You’ve got to have poise. You are going to be challenged by bright students,” MSU Education Dean Richard Blackbourn said. “You are going to be challenged by students who maybe are not performing, who are going to be disruptive. If you’re teaching adolescents, they may say anything to you.”
Along with that ability to engage, excellent teachers are tuned in to feedback from their students.
“It’s one thing to present; it’s another thing to teach,” Loome said. “It’s knowing what students are grasping and how to adjust.”
This is where the excellent teachers know when they need to deviate from pacing guides and make sure their students truly learn a skill, she said.
Teachers need to be comfortable with technology, but it’s not just using the lastest gadget to spice up their presentation.
Excellent teachers need to be adept at drilling into test assessment data to pinpoint concepts and skills that their students need to master.
“They need to be using data to inform the way they teach,” Loome said.
No matter what subject and grade they teach, Loome said teachers need to have one other skill in their tool boxes – the ability to teach reading.
“Unfortunately, too many children in sixth through eighth grade are not proficient readers,” Loome said. Teachers at the upper levels need to be prepared to identify children who aren’t reading proficiently and get them help.

About the Series
THE DAILY JOURNAL continues its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with the fifth installment of a six-day look at the importance of improving teacher quality in Mississippi. Today’s stories explore the question of what makes an excellent teacher and include profiles of high-performing educators. Tomorrow’s concluding installment will address the challenge of keeping teachers in the classroom. To view the entire series, visit

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