The Beliefs and Behaviors of Star Teachers

The Beliefs and Behaviors of Star Teachers

by Martin Haberman

By Teachers.Net News Desk


Reprinted with permission from where it appeared on December 8, 2011.

By Martin Haberman

Distinguished Professor Emeritus

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

Article Abstract

The beliefs of star teachers are compared with quitter/failures. Twelve of these beliefs are explained and examples are given of how they are demonstrated in terms of actual teacher practices. The argument is presented that the strength of these belief systems makes selection more important than training.

After only a few thousand years experts are now willing to admit what the educated public has always known: the quality of the teacher is of critical importance in what and how much students learn. (Sanders, 1996; Nye,2004) Researchers studying over 2,500 classrooms in 400 school districts have also noted the wide variety in teacher effectiveness and concluded that only one in fourteen teachers provides a stimulating classroom learning environment .(Pianta,2007) This supports my research that the typical classroom utilizes the behaviors I have characterized as the pedagogy of poverty and that only one in twelve teachers utilizes effective instructional strategies. (Haberman, 1991) I refer to these individuals as star teachers because they accomplish more than increased test scores. They lead students to become lifelong learners whose lives are guided by what they continue to learn. The research program I have followed has been to compare the beliefs of stars (app. 8 percent) of classroom teachers with those of quitter/failures (over 40 percent.) Included among quitter/failures are those who pass through the profession for five years or less.

The Power of Teacher Beliefs

It is the power of teachers’ beliefs—deeply held commitments which they act upon—which control their receptiveness to teacher training, the nature and extent of the knowledge and skills they develop, their effectiveness as teachers of children and youth and the nature of their development over time. I am not here using the term “beliefs” as some catchall basket of opinions or attitudes that exist on only a verbal or superficial level but to the deep-seated ideas that define a person as a human being with a heart and soul as well as a mind. In German and Yiddish the word would be “mensch.” Psychologists might refer to my use of beliefs as the personal predispositions to act; sociologists might refer to them as core values. Because of the power of such beliefs over one’s actions, I have learned that it is selection not fraining which is paramount. Pick the right people and they will learn to implement remarkable things; pick the wrong people and any pre-service and in-service training will fall on an educational wasteland. (The implications of this assertion for university education in all areas are far-reaching but beyond the scope of this analysis.)

As a result of having developed more programs that have prepared more teachers than anyone else and by virtue of having followed those teachers from selection and training into practice I have benefitted in four ways. First, since most of my programs have been failures in terms of sustainability (the Teacher Corps had 100,000 teachers but lapsed after nine years) I have learned much about what doesn’t work; second, I have learned things which are worthy of replication; third, I have had the opportunity to study the entire process from selection into a teacher education program to functioning as the actual teacher of record; and as a result, I have been able to identify what makes some teachers great and others quitter/failures.

What Can Be Done to Recruit More Stars

By developing these differences into interview questions we have developed the means for selecting applicants into teacher education programs and applicants for positions in school districts who have the beliefs of stars and none of the beliefs held by quitter/failures. The interview is now used in over 300 school districts and in numerous schools of education willing to risk lowering their student numbers. The issue of whether the beliefs of star teachers can be directly taught thereby transforming quitter/failures into potential stars has been posed frequently. Thus far the direct teaching of these beliefs has proven illusive if not impossible. My fervent advice is to select those with star teacher beliefs to begin with and stop trying to demonstrate that college coursework or teacher development activities have significant impact on teachers belief systems.

In the more than 5,000 interviews I have conducted with teachers over the last 53 years I have been able to identify the deep-seated beliefs held by stars that quitter/failures do not believe and vice versa. Each of the following twelve beliefs has important and direct implications for understanding a) why some students benefit from teacher training and others do not, b) why teachers teach in the ways they do, c) why trying to change teachers after they are hired doesn’t work, and d) why school improvement projects in schools typically fail.


Beliefs About the Environment of the School

  1. Stars recognize that school bureaucracies inevitably have rules and procedures which make the teachers’ work more difficult; paper work, time limitations and lack of access to copiers, computers and smart boards are just a few of these. Quitter/failures are unable to deal with the demands of the bureaucracy and begin the process of burning out earlier and faster. Schools are places in which the role of the teacher constantly expands. My local newspaper recently published a picture of a teacher standing next to a barrel helping students empty their lunch trays as a wonderful way the local school is helping to fight obesity. Rather than helping teachers stay focused on teaching and supporting their efforts to foster student learning, schools inevitably expand the teachers duties: bus duty, hall duty, playground duty, lunch duty, team meetings, after-school meetings and worst of all— more paperwork. In the great cities of America more time is spent recording all the services being provided special need students than is actually spent providing them the services. Stars’ commitment to teaching and the welfare of their students helps them accept the reality of working in these dysfunctional bureaucracies in which the multiplicity of rules and regulations stifle initiative. Quitter/failures are completely defeated by school “organization” and burnout.

Beliefs About Whom They Should Teach

  1. Stars expect to deal with problem students and special need students in their daily work; quitter/failures believe problems should by handled by others so they can just teach and not have-to deal with “distractions.” It is mind boggling but nevertheless true that teaching is the only profession in which most of the practitioners don’t regard having problems as a normal, typical, expected part of their job. Dentists, accountants, veterinarians, lawyers and every form of professional practitioner begin with the assumption that everyone s/he deals with comes to him precisely because they have a problem. Indeed, the bigger the problem the higher the fee and those are most welcome. Quitter/failure teachers believe they should be free to cover the curriculum with no intrusions or distractions. If they are forced to deal with a problem they believe such interruptions should not be occurring. They therefore deal with any form of misbehavior in the quickest, most punitive manner. Star teachers expect distractions, interruptions and misbehaviors as opportunities to redirect student behavior and push the class ahead without delays. In planning their lessons stars are quite capable of predicting at which points in their lesson distractions are most likely to occur and how they will handle them. Since quitter/failures don’t believe students with problems should be in their classrooms they do not fully accept the responsibility of teaching them. In effect, they write off substantial numbers in every classroom.

Beliefs About What and How to Teach

  1. Stars believe that the goals of the school are several and varied; quitter failures believe a school is successful if it teaches the “basics.” In addition to basics, stars cite knowledge of important subject matter, citizenship, moral development, health, the arts, problem solving skills, functioning in a computer age, living in a diverse society, the willingness and ability to work in teams, the skills of learning to learn and numerous others as goals which can and should be achieved in a thirteen year school career. Quitter/failures believe the school should limit its focus to preparing future tax payers and keeping them out of prison. The implications of this are far reaching. Stars place great value and importance on learning many ways of knowing and doing. Quitter/failures focus on low-level mundane skills to the exclusion of conceptual development. The result is that if one has only quitter/failure teachers, knowledge is viewed narrowly as low-level skills. If one has even a few star teachers s/he is opened up to the world of the mind and spirit. This difference is readily observed in the drill and kill lessons of quitter/failures in contrast to the classrooms of stars where the most important question is asked by students and teachers again and again; “How do you know that’s true?”
  1. Stars persist in trying to teach subject matter that is connected and becomes more complex through the grades; quitter/failures dumb down the curriculum and teach disconnected lessons. If one visits the classroom of a star teacher a period of orientation is necessary. Clearly, the class has learned things previous to the subject matter currently being taught. Teacher and students constantly refer back, make connections and use material that has been previously mastered. No content of any value can be taught in one hour or a few discrete, disconnected lessons. The classroom observer can hear and see the teacher and students constantly referring back to things previously learned and constantly making connections. Math is not learned by “doing” discrete problems. French is not learned by conjugating a different verb every day. Knowledge of substantial value requires the teacher to be well grounded in the subject, to know the key concepts and main ideas and to help students constantly inter-relate the lesson of the moment to the basic ideas of the subject matter. In the classrooms of quitter/failures the reverse is true. One can show up on any day for any lesson and immediately know what is going on. A student who has been absent for a week can show up and tune in to the lesson of the day. Subject matters have been completely broken down with no connections. School degenerates into a series of discrete lessons as if it were a game of Jeopardy. One can just show up, learn the rules in a few seconds and play the game. There is no need to connect anything that happens today to yesterday or to any big ideas, key concepts of foundations of the particular subject matter. The students of quitter/failures never gain any sense of what knowledge is or what learning for mastery involves.
  2. Stars are committed to the scientific method in every subject matter they teach; quitter/failures do not view the scientific method as the pervasive method of analysis to be used throughout the school curriculum. (I don’t teach science.) Stars display a cornfort with what they don’t know and treat is as an opportunity to join with students in finding answers by using the scientific method. Stars teaching subjects other than the sciences employ the scientific method and move students to seeing its universal value as the way of knowing and understanding the nature of people, the world and the universe we live in. Quitter/failures become confused and defensive conveying the message that the scientific method is only to be used with science subject matter—that it is bad medicine to be avoided. Quitter/failure teachers eschew the scientific method but replace it with no other way of knowing.

Beliefs About How to Deal With Students

  1. Stars believe that motivating students is part of their daily work; quitter/failures do not believe that persistent attempts at motivation are part of their job and write off students who are not self-motivated. (“I can only teach those who want to learn.”) Quitter/failures ‘cover” the curriculum. They act as if teaching were a matter of rehearsing what they already know in the presence of students. Stars act out the belief that motivation and engagement of students is a necessary precursor to all student learning. Star teachers engage in no activities or lessons without planning and including materials and strategies for capturing the interest and imagination of the students. This does not mean that their motivational efforts are always successful. Quite the contrary. The point is they still attempt to engage and connect the material to the student every time they teach
  1. Stars are extremely knowledgeable regarding human development and are able to distinguish between student misbehaviors that result from children going through the stages of child and teenage development; quitter/failures are prone to attribute student misbehaviors to some sort of student deficiency or failing. On the most mundane level: a student is sleepy during first hour. The quitter/failure attributes this behavior to his personality or family or ethnicity while the star’s first thought is the nature of adolescents—who are perfectly normal and healthy but prefer to sleep late. The over-representation of males and minorities in special need classes is one result of this confusion that occurs on the macro level. Quitter/failure teachers are likely to react to behavior they regard as undesirable as a cognitive or emotional defect in the student. Being free of any knowledge of child or adolescent development they do not begin with a valid benchmark of what a child or youth in a particular developmental stage is like. Stars have a clear vision, based on a sound knowledge base of what constitutes normal, typical behavior at the various ages. As a result, stars rarely recommend students for special need classes. Indeed, they are most likely to seek to have students removed from such classes and designations.

Beliefs About How to Trouble Shoot Problems

  1. Stars look for explanations of inadequate student learning in the curriculum, teacher methods and themselves; quitter/failure teachers explain inadequate learning in terms of inadequacies in the students, their families and ethnicity. If learning is not occurring then there are only two categories of explanation: things wrong with the students or things wrong in the way they are being taught. Quitter/failures, like the general public, take the easy way out. Blaming the students and their backgrounds, educators constantly refer to the “challenges’ they face in teaching children and youth in poverty, or from minority backgrounds. If they have inadequate results teaching advantaged students they refer to the negative nature of adolescence or to a consumer society. Stars do the reverse. They constantly ask themselves, “How can I be more effective?” “What better strategies can I employ to get better results?” If a student is doing well, quitter/failures take the credit while stars attribute the success to the student. If a student is doing poorly, quitter/failures blame the victim; stars reflect on their teaching inadequacies.
  2. Star teachers are willing to admit mistakes and even make apologies; quitter/failures regard admitting mistakes to students as a sign of weakness. The reason many students don’t learn all they might in school is because they are afraid to make mistakes. If one’s primary motivation is to avoid mistakes s/he is unwilling to try out ideas or ask questions about new material. Being unwilling to try for connections, solutions or next steps in dealing with new subject matter makes one an observer rather than a participant in the classroom and essentially a non-learner. The cause of this reluctance to try is the socialization students have received from their teachers. What are the teachers’ responses to students’ mistakes? How does the teacher deal with them and what does she communicate to the students about their responses? Stars lead students to believe that making mistakes is part of the learning process; quitter/failure lead them to believe that not trying is better than being incorrect. Even more powerful than the teacher’s responses to students’ trials are how the teacher handles her own mistakes. If the teacher models covering up, not admitting, or blaming others for her mistakes the message to the students is very clear. Stars not only admit their mistakes to the students they apologize for them if they have erroneously accused a student of some misbehavior.

Basic Beliefs About What Makes for School Success and the Importance of that Success

10.Stars believe that success in school is a function of effort; quitter/failures believe success in school is a function of innate ability. The differences in practice that result from this difference is that stars believe their major task as teachers is generating effort while quitter/failures believe that teaching is a matter of making assignments appropriate to the students’ level or placing them in an the correct ability group. This difference also has the insidious effect of controlling the teacher’s expectations. Quitter/failures are constantly predicting how far their students will go in life. By focusing on ability as the explanation for success quitter/failures limit their expectations for most of their students. By focusing on effort stars believe all students will succeed if the teacher uses effectives strategies for connecting them with the material, motivates them, and utilizes engaging materials and equipment. By focusing on effort stars place no limit on how hard they must work to engage students and turn them into active learners.

11.Stars believe the relationship between students and teachers is built on respect; quitter/failures believe teachers and students need to love each other. The notion that love is the basis of the teacher-student relationship is a particularly popular one among early childhood and some elementary teachers. The problem for those who hold this delusion is that there will be many children who never love them and whom they will never love. Quitter/failures are unable to separate misbehavior from the value they place on student as a person. The notion that one becomes a teacher because one loves children inevitably leads to disillusionment. Love is not a method of teaching. Because stars respect children and youth they generate respect in turn. Stars demonstrate their respect for learners in their language, posture, address, the care with which they listen and remember student ideas, and by their willingness to leam about their students’ interests.

12.Stars believe that being successful in school is a matter of life and death for many students; quitter/ failures believe teaching is a secure job. In the 21st century there is little likelihood an individual will ever have a job with health and retirement benefits if they are unsuccessful in school. For those dropping out and for the larger number who finish but lack skills land the ability to learn they may never be able to provide their own children with better life prospects than those they had. Stars have the same view of their work as air traffic controllers or surgeons. They believe that they are dealing with children’s lives in critically important ways. As a result, there is no limit on the amount of effort and time they will expend in the service of their students. Quitter/failures are job-holders. (“I’ve got a family of my own to worry about.”)



Haberman M. (1991) The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Kappan. 73:4 pp.290-294.

Nye B, Konstantopoulos S, & Hedges L. (2004) How large are teacher effects? Education and Policy Analysis. 26:237.

Pianta RC., Belsky J, Houts R, & Morrison F. (2007) Opportunities to learn in America’s classrooms. Science 315: 1795-96.

Sanders WL, & Rivers JC. (1996) Cumulative effects of teachers on future student academic achievement.

Knoxville: University of Tennessee Value Added Research and Assessment Center.