How Do Top Teachers Define “Success?”

Defining “success” in teaching today is tricky. With a national climate sharply focused on test scores, numbers of students graduating, and percentage going on to higher education, performance measures dominate policy discussions and define both “success” and “failure.”*

That national climate infiltrated the classroom and both researchers and policymakers continue to explore and use quantitative measures to determine whether teachers are “effective” (AKA “successful”) by student test scores (see here, here and here).

Few researchers and policymakers, however, asked teachers what they thought made them “successful.” One group did. In 2013, The New Teacher Project published an unusual survey of teachers who had received local, state, and national awards for being excellent teachers.

The survey sample is unrepresentative of the nation’s teachers. Of the 117 teachers who took the online survey (206 were invited to respond), most taught in high-poverty districts, more than a third came from charter schools, were younger than the average teacher and comprised nearly a third minority–a far higher proportion than among U.S. teachers.

So how did these outstanding teachers define “success” in their teaching?

The survey listed 11 indicators of “success” and asked the 117 teachers: “To what extent do you agree or disagree that each of the following achievements makes you feel successful as a teacher”

 The statements are:
My students are successful in future classes of the same subject.
97% of the teachers agreed and strongly agreed with statement.
My students are consistently engaged in content that is intellectually challenging.
96% agreed and strongly agreed.
Other teachers whom I respect give me positive feedback on my teaching.
96% agreed and strongly agreed.
My students tell me that they enjoy being in my class and having me as a teacher.
My students perform well on assessments I have created.
My students consider me someone they can trust and confide in.


My students consistently behave in a way that meets my expectations.


My school leaders give me positive feedback on my teaching.


My students’ parents compliment me on my work with their children.


My students go on to college at high rates.


My students perform well on my state and district standardized tests.


The vast majority of these teachers–the report labels them “irreplaceable”–embrace multiple measures to judge their classroom “success”: student academic and behavioral outcomes, student engagement with content and skills, and personal feedback from students, parents, and supervisors. In short, to these teachers “success” is multi-dimensional.

So what?

The worth of this non-representative survey of teachers given awards for excellent teaching re-states what so many practitioners already know in their hearts and heads. Multiple criteria that include but are not restricted to standardized test scores to determine teacher “success” are essential.

Yet district policymakers, not teachers, design formal evaluations that constrict judging “effective” or “successful” teaching. Usually, the instrument paints a one-dimensional picture of “good” teaching. Multi-dimensional evaluations? Few teacher evaluations pick up on the academic and emotional pieces that add up to a complex portrait of what constitute “success” to these teachers.

What struck me most forcibly in reading this report was the absence of teacher voices in the planning, designing, adopting, and implementing classroom evaluations that touch these various dimensions of teaching.  Ignoring their voices and criteria they use to capture the academic and emotional labor they exert daily in age-graded schools at a time when state standards, high-stakes testing, and coercive accountability reign is, in two words,  prejudicial and inequitable.
















*I use quote marks around “success” and “failure” because the these nouns and related verbs, adjectives, and adverbs vary considerably by who is doing the defining, the criteria used, when, and under what conditions. Not only for teachers but schools, districts, states, and the national system of schooling, these words are highly contested. The quote marks remind readers of their inconstancy.



Filed under how teachers teach

6 responses to “How Do Top Teachers Define “Success?”

  1. David F

    Hi Larry—thanks for this. Many of us are stuck with the Danielson framework for classroom observations, premised on constructivist thought and emphasizing engagement.

  2. Larry. Thanks again for your sharp insights. Recent teaching evaluation reforms did not address (or place a value on) a key lever for school transformation: Determining to what extent teachers help each other get better and how effective they are as a team. A teacher in Singapore cannot earn “master” status without demonstrate how they assist colleagues.

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