The Research on Life-Changing Teaching
What really moves the needle for educators and, by extension, their students?
Being an effective teacher is about more than just improving test scores—it’s also about making a difference in students’ lives. When we asked our readers to describe the traits of a life-changing teacher, they said that great teachers make their students feel safe and loved, possess a contagious passion for learning, believe their students can succeed—and always know when to be tough to help students reach their full potential.
But does the research agree? What are the fundamental levers that teachers can pull to refine their practices, improve their craft, and make a significant—or even life-altering—contribution to the lives of their students?
We reviewed nearly two dozen studies in compiling this piece—so let’s get right to it.
1. Always Be Collecting (Targeted) Feedback
Becoming a better teacher isn’t just about refining your craft—it’s also about developing the right tools to shore up your weaknesses and identify blind spots.
In a 2019 study, researchers interviewed award-winning teachers and found a consistent pattern: They all regularly solicited feedback from their students to identify what was working and what wasn’t. Predictably, the feedback surfaced questions that students had about the material but also teased out valuable, hard-to-spot shortcomings related to how well-organized lessons were, and how easily students could find assignments, grading policies, and other crucial resources.
To get the highest-quality data, keep the feedback low-stakes and focused on pedagogical practices—not the content, suggests high school physics teacher Christopher Pagan. “The purpose of the survey is to give my students a voice to tell me what changes I can make and what practices I can implement to help them perform better in class,” he says. The survey “has nothing to do with content. There are no questions about physics.”
Being open to collegial feedback as well—particularly from someone more experienced than you—has a significant effect size of 0.49, making it a more effective strategy than traditional professional development programs, according to a 2018 study.
- Use student surveys. Assure your students that feedback will be anonymous, and use a mix of targeted questions as well as open-ended ones like “Are assignments clear?” and “What should keep happening in this class?” to quickly home in on areas to improve.
- Invite other teachers into your classroom. Ask teachers you admire, and position it as “an opportunity to seek advice and collaborate on finding solutions,” suggests instructional specialist Miriam Plotinsky.
- Video yourself. Seeing yourself in action provides an opportunity for reflection: Are you calling on the same students? When are students most attentive?
2. Attend to Relationships (and Classroom Culture)
One more time for the folks in the back: Relationships before learning. “In school, children need a sense of belonging to be productive learners,” explained Linda Darling-Hammond in an Edutopia interview. “They need to be connected to their fellow students and their teachers, and affirmed in who they are in a way that is positive and accepting.”
Even the simplest efforts can yield meaningful results. In a 2018 study, teachers who spent a few minutes greeting kids at the door dramatically improved student attentiveness and reduced misbehavior—adding as much as “an additional hour of student engagement” over the course of an instructional day. Meanwhile, a 2019 study found that when teachers used techniques centered around establishing, maintaining, and restoring relationships throughout the year, academic engagement increased by 33 percent and disruptive behavior decreased by 75 percent.
- Check in daily. Spend 15 minutes on morning meetings, a rose-and-thorn activity, or daily temperature checks to build the bonds of community and identify kids who are struggling.
- Conduct relationship audits. Consider using a relationship tracking form to inventory student interests and personal details, or take teacher Todd Finley’s advice and keep a praise checklist to “chart who you’ve praised so you can spread the love evenly.”
- Be responsive. Allowing your lessons to emerge from the interest of your students can revitalize the class. “I do student surveys every nine weeks,” a teacher wrote to Edutopia, “and when I implement stuff from their feedback, I let them know I’m doing this because I heard them and they matter to me.”
3. Don’t Give an Inch on Standards
Relationships matter—but they’re not a substitute for rigor. In fact, to get the most out of your students, you’ll need to strike the right balance between caring deeply for kids and exposing them to challenging or even frustrating materials.
“The assumption is that one can be either a compassionate teacher or a rigorous teacher, but not both—and there’s a belief that kids don’t want rigor,” writes middle school teacher Kristine Napper. But high expectations are effective when you adopt a “warm demander” approach and work within a student’s zone of proximal development, she says. Build strong relationships with your students, and then draw on that trust to hold them accountable for outstanding work.
The impact of maintaining high academic standards is far-reaching. In a 2014 study, for example, high school students whose teachers had high expectations were three times more likely to graduate from college than students whose teachers had low expectations—even when student grades were identical.
- Be direct. Students who received encouraging but aspirational messages from their teachers—“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them”—were twice as likely to revise their work, a 2014 study found.
- Embrace “productive failure.” In a 2008 study of 11th graders, researchers concluded that challenging problems that resulted in “productive failure” actually drove deeper learning than simpler, highly scaffolded problems that reliably produced correct answers.
- Avoid busywork and remedial work. Low expectations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research reveals that when passionate students are repeatedly assigned remedial work, it snuffs out the spark of interest and becomes an academic dead end.
4. Make Your Classroom Management ‘Invisible’
The best classroom management can feel almost invisible: Proactive strategies that emphasize strong relationships are quietly at work behind the scenes, putting a stop to student misbehavior before it gets started.
That’s an insight from a 2021 study in which researchers discovered that expert teachers, in particular, possessed a “comprehensive understanding of classroom management and its complexity.” The most experienced educators conceived of classroom discipline holistically—looking for the “root causes” of misbehavior before they considered punishment, prioritizing strong student-teacher relationships, and thinking about discipline as a natural extension of the way lessons were organized and executed, or even how the physical environment was arranged.
- Pick your battles. Sometimes you have to confront kids, but when you call out every low-level disruption, you may unwittingly be giving students the spotlight they crave and reinforcing the misbehavior. Instead, draw attention to positive behavior and rely on relationships and lesson engagement to do a lot of the work.
- Be adaptive. “Successful classroom management requires the adaptive application of a repertoire of different strategies,” says a 2021 study. What works for one student may not work for another, so consider the right tool for the situation.
- Involve students in norm-setting. A list of rules won’t produce compliance, researchers insist: Consider working together to identify key guidelines, suggests teacher David Tow—such as being respectful of others—and reflect on and amend them throughout the year.
5. Humanize Your Teaching
You can calibrate your bell schedules and arrange your classroom seating immaculately, but it’s the messy emotional worlds of students—their daily ration of hope, fear, sadness, passion, and confidence—that ultimately determine academic readiness.
Attending to the emotional well-being of kids, then, is just effective academic instruction. It starts with the “little things,” from “treating kids like people” to “pulling up a chair and listening to them carefully,” said educators in a recent social media thread. A rapidly growing number of studies suggest that setting aside 5 or 10 minutes for student self-reflection—from brief essays that allow kids to tackle their school-related anxieties to perspective-taking exercises before a test—can move students along the continuum from belonging to self-confidence to academic success.
Finally, don’t underestimate the role that identity plays in learning. Students are resilient, but peer pressure and academic self-doubt can send them reeling: In a 2021 article for Scientific American, researchers concluded that students as young as 7 years old are keenly aware of social reputation and “begin to connect asking for help with looking incompetent in front of others.” Give students private channels to seek help, the researchers suggest, and try to reduce the stigma associated with mistakes.
- Give grace. If a student misses an assignment, it may be for reasons outside of their control. “Retakes let students know that I acknowledge their humanity, that we all have bad days,” says high school teacher David Cutler.
- Opt for low-stakes tests. Testing season is misery for many students, driving up biological indicators of stress and interrupting sleep cycles. Frequent, low-stakes quizzes are game-changers: They rely on proven learning methods, reduce student anxiety, and dramatically improve retention.
- Give kids a break. A 2021 study found that during breaks, the brain replays learned material over and over at high speed, compressing and consolidating it. The research strongly endorses more downtime, concluding that “wakeful rest plays just as important a role in learning as practice does.”
6. Check Your Biases
Bias is sneaky; it has a way of creeping into spaces we think are airtight. In a 2021 study, for example, German researchers found that overweight seventh-grade students were more harshly graded in language arts and math, and a 2011 study concluded that teachers were more likely to perceive shy or quiet children as “less intelligent” than exuberant or talkative ones.
Racial bias is especially insidious and widespread. A 2020 study found that teachers were 13 percent more likely to give a second grader’s personal essay a passing grade if the main character’s brother was named “Connor”—suggesting that the student was White—instead of “Dashawn,” a name that indicated a Black writer. A 2019 study identified similar patterns of racial bias in the way discipline was meted out.
- Use grading rubrics. When rubrics articulate clear standards and are applied rigorously, bias in grading is greatly reduced, a 2020 study found.
- Get a second opinion. Periodically have other teachers review assessments with you. The mere “awareness that people’s work will be reviewed for bias” decreases the level of bias at play, says David Quinn, a professor of education at the University of Southern California.
- Conduct self-audits. Check your materials for inclusivity. Making small, culturally relevant adjustments to curriculum—incorporating references and images of Black figures, for example—boosted achievement in Black students by almost a full letter grade.
7. Authenticity + Passion = Success!
Don’t spend time trying to live up to mythical teachers or fall prey to the popular notion that educators are entertainers.
In short, be yourself. In a 2019 interview with Edutopia, Sal Khan, the influential educator and founder of Khan Academy, suggested that teachers make stronger connections to students when they “let their quirkiness shine” and engage in collaborative, “messy” learning. A 2017 study, meanwhile, concluded that students prefer teachers who have an authentic, conversational style—and suggested that when educators are passionate about the material, it inspires kids to invest more time and effort in learning.
Life-changing teachers aren’t just nominally passionate about the subjects they teach, however—like talented professionals in any field, they spend time every day honing their craft, whether it’s by reading books and articles, learning from their colleagues, or trying out new ideas.
- Continually update your knowledge. From learning walks—where groups of teachers visit each other’s classrooms to pick up new ideas—to book clubs and using Twitter to grow your PLN, strive to expand your teaching expertise, say educators we’ve interviewed across the country.
- Connect to your passions. “No matter what subject I’m teaching, I find ways to bring my hobbies into the classroom,” writes educator Hubert Ham. “For example, I’m a car enthusiast, so when I teach physics, I contextualize concepts with my knowledge about cars.” This does wonders for student engagement and relationships, says Ham.
8. Close the Book on the Day
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that teaching is clearly getting harder—too hard, in many cases. In our 2021 research roundup, we reviewed the research and identified an “unprecedented erosion of the boundaries between teachers’ work and home lives,” and found that teachers were being asked to adopt new technology without the “resources and equipment necessary for its correct didactic use.”
To educate kids, teachers need a clear end to their work day and time to replenish themselves, and it’s the school systems—not the teachers—that need to adjust accordingly. What else should be done? In our research roundup, we concluded that “creating strict school policies that separate work from rest, eliminating the adoption of new tech tools without proper supports, distributing surveys regularly to gauge teacher well-being—and above all listening to educators to identify and confront emerging problems might be a good place to start, if the research can be believed.”