Sometimes, on their sleepier days, Wayne Phillips encourages his Grade 3 and 4 students to stand on tables and sing. When they arrived in class one day this week in the small community of Poplar Ridge, Alta., he had the volume cranked on the music video Human, by the Killers. He's big on high fives and using funny voices to tell stories.
But what makes him a great teacher, not just an entertaining one, is his detailed lesson planning and, especially, the fact that he reinvents those plans every summer. Even after 24 years of teaching, he tries new strategies - making a racing game of geography, for example, by drawing a map of Alberta on the floor. He teaches responsibility by assigning jobs in class for which students apply (with résumés), are paid (in "brain bucks" to be spent in a June silent auction) and can be "fired" for poor work.
He rarely uses textbooks or worksheets. He knows how his students are doing and, because they often evaluate their work as a group, so do they. Building rapport, he says, is key: "Every day the kids are taking lots of chances answering questions, and they have to feel safe to do that."
And he shares his ideas with other teachers, such as the summer scrapbook students put together before their first day in his class.
A good teacher often seems like mysterious alchemy, a magic potion of warmth and diligence and organization, with a splash of charisma, but researchers have long tried to distill it down to science. Some of the most stringent work has been done by the U.S. educational charity Teach for America, which has spent years tracking teachers in the classroom and analyzing what makes them successful.
Mr. Phillips, who last year received a teaching excellence award from the Prime Minister, would appear to get high grades: He is enthusiastic, he is continually innovating and, perhaps most important of all, he perseveres.
"If I am not that way," he says, "then I really shouldn't be in this position."
However, if he were a great lawyer or doctor, he could expect to reap the fruits of his talent and hard work financially. As a teacher, only two entries on his résumé count toward his salary: education level and years of experience - two factors, the research says, that matter hardly at all when it comes to an educator's effectiveness. It's often said teachers are rewarded for longevity rather than skill.
"How does it reward good teachers to pay someone more because they have five years of university instead of four?" asks Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba high-school teacher and co-author of the upcoming book What's Wrong with Schools - and How We Can Fix Them. "[The current system]has a lot to do with keeping things simple and maintaining the status quo, but not much to do with encouraging students' performance."
While parents in Canada invest their energy picking schools based on citywide rankings, studies suggest it's the individual teacher who really matters; for academic results, at least, parents' time would be better spent searching out that exceptional Grade 3 teacher, even if he or she worked in a lower-performing school.
According to one American study, having an exceptionally effective teacher for four or five years practically can erase the difference in school performance between low- and middle-income students.
The question, then, is: How can the system encourage more great teaching?
ON THEIR MERITS
The idea of providing better teachers with better pay, through raises or bonuses, has been gaining ground in the United States. Even some teachers unions, long opposed to merit pay, have softened on the idea.
President Barack Obama's education reforms include a $4-billion pot for states that make their schools the most accountable and specifically link standardized tests to teacher performance, with more merit pay often being the inevitable result.
"It's time to start rewarding good teachers," Mr. Obama said in a speech last year, "[and]stop making excuses for bad ones."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it more bluntly in a speech to the National Education Association: The current system, he said, "treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets."