LSU professor’s book tackles heart of education reform

Sandra Balli, La Sierra University associate professor of curriculum and instruction.
Sandra Balli, La Sierra University associate professor of curriculum and instruction.

April 13, 2010
By Darla Martin Tucker

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( The verdict is in. State education systems in Delaware and Tennessee are the first-phase winners of a new, highly competitive federal grant program and will respectively receive $100 million and $500 million to help renovate their programs and improve student performance.

The much-discussed, two-part $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant program, administered by the U.S. Dept. of Education, includes requirements that school districts find ways of improving the effectiveness of their teachers. While columnists and pundits discuss the implications of this new and rigorous education reform effort, Sandra Balli, La Sierra University associate professor of curriculum and instruction, cuts to the heart of the matter in her book about what makes an excellent teacher.

Rowman & Littlefield Education, a subsidiary of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc. in Maryland, published Balli’s 180-page volume in April 2009. The book is titled “Making a Difference in the Classroom: Strategies that Connect with Students.” Through touching and sometimes humorous student anecdotes, the work details the makeup of exemplary teachers. Balli based her writing on the qualitative analysis of essays completed by 148 students at a Midwestern university several years ago. Balli asked the students to write about an episode from their elementary, high school or early college years describing how a teacher in their academic experience demonstrated excellence. She transcribed the information from the essays into NVivo, a qualitative research software system.

The analysis turned up four key ideas underlying the essence of excellence: excellent teachers permeate the classroom with energy and joy and refuse to take irritations too personally or themselves too seriously; excellent teachers are caring and nourish students unconditionally, including those who don’t reciprocate; excellent teachers are responsible and steadfast in lesson preparation – they don’t wing it; excellent teachers are serious about learning, have high expectations for all students and believe all students can learn, traveling in the trenches with each student in the process.

“These were students who wanted to be teachers,” said Balli of the students who wrote the essays. “My interest in teaching excellence was from the perspective of the students, so I was looking for the qualities and instructional strategies that make a teacher excellent. I was not so much looking for the popular teachers, but for teachers who really impacted student learning and their potential.”

The students’ responses depicted teachers from every grade level through early college and in every subject area, Balli said.

Her book covers the full gamut of issues teachers face daily in the classroom, with 13 chapters on such topics as “Respect,” “Teacher-Student Friendships,” “Teaching Styles,” and “Classroom Management.”

In a chapter titled “Learning Activities” a student named Tiffany described her teacher’s intelligence and organizational skills as the least among her positive attributes. The teacher’s most impressive quality was her creativity, the student said. “She varied her teaching methods so we didn’t get bored. …We acted out plays, we did group projects, and she brought in interesting guest speakers.”

Many students will name recess as their favorite school activity because it is activity “that dominates the terrain of the playground,” Balli writes in the chapter. “Students have a valid point about long, dragging class periods choked with remedial, passive seat work. In such classes, students become like coiled springs waiting for the signal to bolt. …When teachers get active with the curriculum, the dynamics of learning fundamentally change.”

The chapter on “High Expectations” includes a vignette from a student named Jade who wrote her former chemistry teacher “was the teacher everyone hated, including me. It wasn’t until college that I grew to appreciate and respect her. She accepted no excuse for less than our best. She had high expectations for every student….She patiently re-taught material when needed and remained available for extra help.”

Students’ views of past failures are a strong predictor of future success, writes Balli in the same chapter. Teachers can question students about the reasons they believe they failed at a particular task. Teachers can then use the information the help the student focus on different study strategies or ways of thinking rather than attributing the failure to a perceived lack of ability.  

Teachers have at their disposal, “clear cut pathways” along the journey toward excellence, Balli writes. “Among them are conferring with trusted colleagues who also strive, journaling at the end of a teaching day, reading the collective wisdom of research and practice, participating in the community, attending meaningful conferences, and amending classroom strategies…”

In a chapter titled “Not Like Some Teachers,” Balli writes that society expects teachers to prepare report cards, administer discipline, organize learning materials and produce other tangible results. “But for students, teaching is more than working out the mechanical elements of a job description; those teachers …who are extraordinary rather than ordinary, occupy a prime place in students’ memories.” Teachers should avoid acting as if they know all the facts when they don’t, should admit mistakes and avoid barraging students with a litany of “colorless facts,” Balli writes.

She concludes that the pursuit of excellence is a journey “with a destination but no final stopping point.”

The book contains a four-page foreword by David C. Berliner, Regents’ Professor at the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, Arizona State University. Berliner, an acclaimed author and educational psychologist, likens Balli’s views to those of John Dewey. “Dewey—and now Balli—reminds us that school should not be thought of as preparation for life, but is, in fact, life itself,” Berliner writes.  “I think that Sandy Balli has nailed it. Her advice and tutorials are compatible with the research on teacher expertise but much more vivid and lively because she knows classroom life so well.”


PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University
Riverside, California
951.785.2460 (voice)


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