What is Exemplary Teaching?

We recently concluded interviews for a high school principal position.  I was fortunate enough to be a part of the interview team.  Many of the questions were predictable, but there were a few that caught the candidates by surprise.  One such question was when we asked, “As a leader how would you ensure all students were able to discover and explore and their strengths and passions” (special thanks to Chris Wejr for that one). Another question that caused some surprise revolved around having the candidates describe a time they used courage in their professional career.  Each candidate did a great job and I was thankful to have been a part of the day.

As with most days, I found myself reflecting on what had happened.  I thought about our process, the questions we asked, the responses from the candidates.  I thought about how I would have answered some if I were interviewing for the position.  Upon giving the day more thought, the following question really stood out for me, “What key concepts do exemplary teachers include in their instructional practice?”  It didn’t stand out because the candidates felt it was difficult or it surprised them.  It stood out for me due to the variety of answers that were given.  This person will be hired as the instructional leader of the school.  Each of the candidates were current administrators, yet none of the answers were consistent.  I thought to myself as the perceived instructional leaders of a school, shouldn’t we be able to explain what strategies an exemplary teacher uses on a day to day basis?  Shouldn’t we all have some consistency in our thinking?  I think we should, and as I thought about it a little more I tried to figure out what my answer to the question would have been.

Here is what my response would have been regarding exemplary teacher practices (in no particular order):

1)  Clear Learning Targets:  Learning should be transparent and attainable for every student in the classroom.  The use of learning targets that are shared visibly and through discussion allows all students to know what they will be learning.  An exemplary teacher does not and should not create a “gotcha” scenario for students through instruction or assessment.  An exemplary teacher conveys what it is that a student is expected to know, understand and be able to do at the conclusion of a lesson.  They also create targets that are specific, student friendly, and action oriented.  Every student wants to know what it is they are supposed to do and an exemplary teacher understands this and provides this for their students.

2)  Responsive to Students:  An exemplary teacher responds to the learning needs of their students.  They do not teach as they best learn.  They teach how their students learn best.  An exemplary teacher honors students’ preferences in learning and adjusts content to meet those needs.  They also actively seek to understand their students’ skills and talents so they can match an appropriate strategy for the learning needs.  An exemplary teacher is responsive in that they close the gap between knowing what to do and really doing it.  Being responsive is doing what is fair for students and exemplary teachers understand this.

3)  Intellectually Challenging:  An exemplary teacher has the technical expertise and content knowledge appropriate for the class.  They create multiple opportunities for students to engage in the material and ask questions.  An exemplary teacher works at not being the “sage on the stage” and assumes the role of facilitator.  They get out of the way of students and their quest to learn.  In doing so, they create a classroom environment of engagement that fosters intellectual stimulation and curiosity.  The exemplary teacher is able to organize their lessons and create pathways for this to be possible.

4)  Builds Relationships:  We can’t teach what we don’t know.  We also can’t teach if we don’t know our students.  If a teacher does not know their students how can they respond to the learning needs?  One of the biggest things a classroom teacher must do is get to know their students.  An exemplary teacher understands this and works on doing this each and every day.  They build relationships by being positive with students, interacting with them both in and out of class, they make themselves available to help students with their work after class, and treat each student as an individual.  Fair isn’t always equitable and exemplary teachers understand this notion when working with students.

5)  Assess, Assess, Assess:   For many, I realize the word “assess” conjures up negative thoughts as we think about AYP and the number of exams our students take today.  Suffice to say, this isn’t the kind of assessment I am talking about.  Rather, I am thinking about formative assessment.  An exemplary teacher employs formative assessment techniques and strategies multiple times during a lesson.  They continually assess whole group, small group, and individual students to determine comprehension of the learning target.  Through these routine assessments an exemplary teacher will make instructional adjustments on the fly in the hope that all students will be able to demonstrate mastery of the learning target.  An exemplary teacher realizes that students cannot learn without formative assessments.

6)  Reflection:  Exemplary teachers understand and utilize the power of reflection.  They reflect upon themselves, their practice, and their students work.  They think about and remember what they did.  They think about what was important during the lesson and if students understood.  They think about using certain pieces of the lesson again at a later time.  They think about the patterns of learning they saw in the classroom with certain students.  They think about how well they did and what did the students produce that led them to their conclusion.  And finally, they think about their next steps.  Exemplary teachers become automatic in their reflective processes.  They also work at developing these techniques in their students.  Reflection is the mother of all learning and an exemplary teacher practices this until it becomes permanent with them and their students.

I am sure there are other things I could include on this list, but I think this is how I would have answered the question during the interview.  Some of you may agree with items on the list, think I left some items out, or disagree with what you have ready.  If that is the case, feel free to leave a comment for further discussion.


About Scott Friedman

Reflective learner who enjoys time with his family and cycling. By day, I am the Director of Teaching & Learning for the Nine Mile Falls SD.
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9 Responses to What is Exemplary Teaching?

  1. Sounds much like Assessment for Learning methodology. Thanks for this post. I appreciate your need for reflection.

  2. I’m surprised that under the “builds relationships” point, you didn’t mention that the exemplary teacher reaches out to other teachers; learns from them, and shares with them. I’ve seen teachers who have every single quality that you describe, but they keep it within the walls of their classroom, and don’t share themselves or their “instructional practices” with anyone except their students. An exemplary teacher does not worry about giving away what he or she knows, they know that more knowledge will alway come to them, and they’re happy to share and work with colleagues to help spread best practices.

    • Janice,

      Thank you so much for reading my post and taking the time to comment. I wholeheartedly agree that an exemplary teacher needs to share what they do with their colleagues. This is an extremely critical piece to building and increasing the capacity of all teachers in a school. As you stated, exemplary teachers have trouble doing just this as they do not view themselves as great. They typically view those around them as being great and they do what they do keep up. Ironically, it is the things they do to keep up that makes them exemplary.

      One thing I am going to do this year is ask those exemplary teachers to share some of their teaching strategies during a staff meeting. Hopefully this will build confidence I them to do this during other times they are working as a staff or as a department.

      I greatly appreciate your thoughts and comments. You have given me some food for thought. Have a great year!

  3. T. Henriksen says:

    Great list and descriptions! I agree with all of them. The only thing I would add would be the exemplary teacher is always learning. Professional development is an important part of an exemplary teacher’s teaching and own learning. The exemplary teacher strives to learn, and strives to improve (much like your reflection, but just taking it a step further).

    Question though… does an exemplary teacher need to integrate technology into their teaching? Is technology an essential component of engaging and motivating students, and if so, should this also be included? Just wondering what your thoughts are on this.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I think you would have done very well if you answered this question this way. 🙂

    • Thank for your comments and thoughts. You are correct in stating that an exemplary teaching is always learning. They typically reflect ont their practice, identify their learning edges, and create a goal to smooth the edges – so to speak. Think the reason I didn’t include the concept or notion of professional learning was that I was looking thorugh the lens of a classroom observation/walkthrough and thinking what is it that you would see an exemplary teaching doing/ modeling.

      In regards to your question I think an exemplary teacher understands that technology is a tool that can and does increase students’ engagement with a topic. This increased level of engagement can and does lead to the mastery of a learning. In recognizing that tech is a tool that helps facilitate learnig, the exemplary teacher knows when it is appropriate and how to use tech in the class to support student learning. I guess it could be said that an exemplary teacher doesn’t use tech for tech sake, but uses tech when they know it will be an important instructional strategy to increase student comprehension.

      Thank you for your comments and I will look forward to your thoughts on future posts of mine.

  4. Jan Iwase says:

    Scott, are you a new blogger or have you been blogging for awhile? You seem like such a natural at it. I love that others commented on your blog and you replied. Do you share your blog with your school community? This is really your vision of what you’d like to see when you visit classrooms.

    • Scott Friedman says:


      I don’t consider myself a blogger as most of my “blogs” are still contained in my head. It is something that I have wanted to do more of and maybe with your kind words regarding me seeming like a natural, I will make it more a priority. I have enjoyed each post I have written and found it to be reflective in my thinking. I do think this is a vision of what I would like to see when I visit classrooms.

      I haven’t explicitly shared my blog with the school community, but I don’t hide it from them either. This is more of a space for my thinking, rather than a blog about the school.

      Thanks for your comment and know that I have enjoyed reading your blog as well.

  5. Jeff Dartnell says:

    “What key concepts do exemplary teachers include in their instructional practice?”
    – How would I have answered that question? After reading your blog post I reflected on old interviews that I had in the past and on the interviews I have conducted as an administrator. I agree with all the answers given – I also think creativity should be part of the ‘exemplary teacher; criteria. I believe teachers need to be creative thinkers that infuse creativity into their lesson plans, discussions, etc. We, as instructional leaders, need to understand the importance of creative thought inside schools and within the workplace.

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