What makes a good elementary school teacher: Expertise in nurturing or content?

A new report says we need to shore up the training of teachers in the early grades.

Most people agree strong content knowledge is essential for middle and high school teachers.

Is it as critical for teachers in the elementary grades?

A national testing expert once told me he would choose a more nurturing teacher for his young kids over one with better content expertise. To him, the most important role of teachers in the early grades was helping students develop a love of learning and school.

He wanted his children to come home and announce, “My teacher is so nice to me.” Younger students, he said, are motivated by how teachers relate to them rather than how teachers relay material. Few second graders ever proclaim, “Boy, my teacher really knows her stuff.”

In my experience, the ideal elementary school teacher is both nurturing and knowledgeable. However, with young kids, I think the calculation is simpler: They like the teachers who like them — regardless of how well the teachers knew the content.

With that said, here is the official summary of a new report on elementary school teachers:

The National Center on Education and the Economy’s Center on International Education Benchmarking’s (CIEB) new report, “Not So Elementary: Primary School Teacher Quality in Top-Performing Systems,” gives new insights into a critical driver of the success of the world’s top-performing education systems — developing elementary teachers with deep content knowledge.

These high-performing systems recognize that a strong foundation in the core subjects in the early grades increases the chances that all students will achieve at higher levels throughout their schooling. The report finds that teacher preparation in Finland, Japan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong builds deep understanding of the content being taught in elementary schools as well as of how young students learn and understand that content—two essential components of highly effective teaching. The report also gives guidance on what the United States can learn from these systems to strengthen teaching in elementary schools.

“Not So Elementary underscores the reality for teaching in today’s world: the best education systems have identified deep content knowledge as a critical component of highly effective instructional systems, starting with elementary teachers,” said NCEE President and CEO Marc Tucker.  “Countries whose high school graduates are among the world’s best-educated can recruit their teachers from the middle of the range of their graduating seniors, but countries like the United States whose high school graduates are not among the world’s best educated are asking for real trouble by recruiting their teachers from the lower ranges of high school graduates.  We now face an enormous challenge: raising the segment of high school graduates from which we recruit our elementary school teachers, demanding much deeper grounding of prospective teachers in the subjects they will teach, and, at the same time, raising the game of the teachers already in our schools.”

“The countries with the best-performing education systems are recruiting very able students from their high schools, and investing heavily in the initial training and continuous development of their teachers to ensure that they have a deep understanding of the subject they will teach and the most effective ways to teach that subject to their students. Without a deep understanding of the subjects being taught in elementary school, a teacher will not be able to identify the specific misunderstandings of the underlying concepts that defeat students and cannot help them grasp the concepts that constitute the essential foundation for more advanced work in middle and high school.”

In the report, leading Australian researcher Ben Jensen describes how high-performing countries ensure that their elementary teachers have strong content knowledge. They have done so by focusing on the selection of teachers, content specialization, initial teacher education, and professional learning systems in their schools. These four policy levers, combined with a well-integrated and highly effective education system as a whole, serve as a powerful means of improving student learning.


High-performing systems set rigorous standards for becoming a teacher in order to ensure that only the most well-qualified individuals enter classrooms. According to the report, each jurisdiction studied has developed quality control checks at different points in the teacher development pathway.  Some—like Finland—have very high admissions requirements for entry into teacher education institutions, the very beginning of the development pathway.  Others—like Japan—place the quality control check at the point of hiring in the form of an employment examination.  Only the top-scoring candidates are hired for teaching positions.


Specialization refers to the idea that elementary school teachers have some sort of subject-specialization in their preparation and development. It can also mean a narrower teaching role—instead of teaching all subjects, elementary teachers may study and teach only one or a few, as is the case in Hong Kong and Shanghai. In Finland and Japan, elementary school teachers are generalists, as they are in the United States, studying and teaching all subjects.

In both Finland and Japan, however unlike the U.S., elementary teachers also choose a subject to major or minor in, so they receive particularly specialized content knowledge in at least one subject area.  In Japan, teachers with specialized knowledge lead professional learning in that subject area.  In all these countries, the general level of high school graduates of the core subjects in the elementary school curriculum is significantly higher than in the U.S., so it is much less likely than in the United States that a teacher of, say, mathematics will not have a sound grasp of the conceptual underpinning of the material being taught.

Initial Teacher Education

Initial teacher education programs in high-performing systems share three things in common, according to Not So Elementary.  First, they focus on foundational knowledge of the content that teachers will teach at the elementary school level. Rather than taking advanced mathematics courses, for instance, elementary math teachers develop a deep and flexible understanding of the actual mathematics topics they will teach.  Second, there is a strong emphasis on how students learn and understand the specific content that will be taught and not just general teaching skills. Finally, teacher education institutions have a high degree of alignment between their courses and curricula and the curriculum being taught in elementary schools.

Professional Learning

Many of the top-performing countries essentially apprentice new teachers to senior master teachers during the first year and sometimes the first two years of their work as teachers. This kind of strong apprenticeship enables the new teachers to learn their craft in a way that is simply not possible in a traditionally organized university experience.  But that is not the end of a new teacher’s growth and development. High-performing systems build professional learning strategies and practices to support all teachers through their whole professional career.

In Shanghai, teacher professional learning is largely structured to develop subject-specific expertise through mentoring relationships and teacher research and lesson development groups. In Hong Kong, new teachers observe classrooms in their specialized subject area and have their classrooms observed as well with the goal of constantly improving lessons. They then take part in reflection activities to understand what they have learned from their peers.

Systemic Approach

Though often difficult to quantify, one of the most important characteristics of top performers’ success in elementary school teacher quality is the systemic nature of the education system itself.  In Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, and Finland, different parts of the system constantly support and reinforce the need for deep subject expertise and understanding of student learning. Not So Elementary describes how all parts of the system, from selection to initial teacher education, school curriculum, school organization and professional development, work in an integrated and highly effective manner to support teachers and the students that they teach.

Reader Comments 0


This is an excellent, persuasive report. I hope it is read and absorbed by all education policy makers in Georgia!

In my workshops with teachers (as test development consultant) I learned some unfortunate facts:

--Many elementary and middle school teachers never learned how to teach reading -- yet we have a lot of data on how best to teach it, what works and what doesn't.

-- It is common and considered acceptable for teachers to proclaim "I don't do math "

-- it is also common to observe teachers' poor spelling -- and their dismissive attitude that spelling doesn't matter.

Obviously, teachers must have not only content knowledge but knowledge and skill in how to teach it to children. This is necessary -- but not sufficient! -- for effective teaching. The other necessity is, of course, the ability to relate to children with loving kindness and respect. Montessori teachers, for example, are encouraged to have "reverence" for the miracle of children constructing their understanding of the world.

Children learn best when their teacher has deep understanding of subject matter, has the specialized knowledge and skill in how to teach it, and conveys an attitude of caring, respect, and high expectations toward students -- of any age.



Well said.  And, you are especially on target regarding the lack of knowledge of how effectively to teach reading on the elementary and middle school levels, and I would add, even on the high school level, where that knowledge is, also, needed.  I was a certified reading specialist in the state of Georgia for grades 1 - 12, before I retired.


Systemic Approach - Though often difficult to quantify, one of the most important characteristics of top performers’ success in elementary school teacher quality is the systemic nature of the education system itself.  In Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, and Finland, different parts of the system constantly support and reinforce the need for deep subject expertise and understanding of student learning. Not So Elementary describes how all parts of the system, from selection to initial teacher education, school curriculum, school organization and professional development, work in an integrated and highly effective manner to support teachers and the students that they teach.”

Yep!  And APS leadership as a counterexample to the Systemic Approach


Expertise in nurturing and content knowledge are necessary for teachers at all levels. All students regardless of age want to be liked and respected by their teacher. These two characteristics are not mutually exclusive. 


Why must the question be presented as a forced choice between two mutually exclusive options? Surely it's good to have a teacher with a nurturing disposition and subject area knowledge, along with other qualities such as the ability to help kids learn. 


@Peter_Smagorinsky Because so much of the way we as a country think is analytical more so than synthetical.  Then analytical thinking plays well with competitive thinking.  


@EdJohnson @Peter_Smagorinsky

I have never respected those teachers who have expressed glee for issuing a "F" to any student, whatever the student's age.  To me, teachers who feel that way have lacked both compassion and wisdom, as I have observed that attitude expressed by certain teachers over the course of my 35 year teaching career.



You have touched on what drove me to teach a course at Morehouse College.

As a Non-Commissioned Officer in the US Army Security Agency (ASA), I had intuitively developed a keen appreciation for my team as a system that inherently had nothing to do with being “military.”  Never mind that, at one extreme, I had the spit-and-polish individual and, at the other extreme, there was the guy who liked to play in the poppy fields.  ASA was not “regular” Army; it was different – spooky kind of different – all enlisted men under regular Army command for administrative purposes but with operations reporting directly to No Such Agency.  Black men were first admitted to the ASA during the Kennedy Administration; women, c. 1970.

So, soon after completing my term of service with honorable discharge, I enrolled at Clark College, right across the street from Morehouse.  Took this particular course at Morehouse.  The professor was more concerned with getting his jollies by flunking students than with students learning anything.  Several times I invited him to awaken to the damage he was doing for no good reason.  The last straw, for me, came when I found myself hurling choice words, and walking out on the professor but not before telling him “I will have your job!”

So, a few years later, after having graduated and worked for No Such Agency, where, of course, I was a No Such Person, I had the professor’s job.  I promptly instituted a new course syllabus with the aim if any student failed, then the onus for failure would be on me, not the student.

Then some ten years after having taught the course, one day I walked into a major retail store downtown Atlanta, when someone called out to me – it was the manager – “Mr. Johnson!  Mr. Johnson!  I just want to tell you your course was the only one where I learned anything.  All my other courses at Morehouse were only about getting the grade.”

Words still is my head.  Words that drive me up wall when I think of what Beverly Hall did, and now what the new APS superintendent is doing, to Atlanta public schools (lowercase p and s intentional).

Still, do I call myself a teacher or educator?  Nope.  I would not dare so disrespect those who are teachers and educators.  It would be like me dishonoring Vietnam War Veterans when, in reality, I’m a Vietnam Era Veteran with no in-country service, although I tried to visit but couldn’t get past Spooky sitting by door.  So I only claim I am someone who, at the time, got pissed – I mean, really pissed – at a professor who demonstrated having absolutely no understanding of his classroom as a system of learners.  Much like Hall and the new APS superintendent who so clearly continually demonstrate having nary a bit of understanding of APS as system of learners for which they and they alone were/are responsible.

Maybe I should just go tell the new APS superintendent “I will have your job!”


@EdJohnson @MaryElizabethSings

Thank you for sharing your story with me and with others who read this blog.

I have seen too many, especially high school teachers in my long career, who would rather blame students than try to reach them, where they are functioning.  Then, the self-satisfaction of giving the student a F which the teacher has justified in her/his own mind based on negative labels that teacher had already assigned to those students is not what a teacher should be, imo. 

I have given Fs (but not that many) to students in my day who, I knew ,had the skills and the ability to pass my course but chose not to exercise either.  However, I never was pleased to have gotten "even" with a student, for whatever reason.  Once, when I gave the F to a smart student who earned it, I talked with him afterwards and he said to me, "You were right to have given me that F and in a way I am glad that you did, for it showed me that you KNEW I had the ability to do better.  Because of your care for students, I knew you would not give a student who was simply misplaced an F, or a student who was slow but trying to improve.  Students see with great discernment and we must always know that and show them the right values through being teachers who are compassionate, caring, but always expecting the best work that a student can deliver.  At least, that is what teaching taught me. 


Good ideas.  It's a pity that many Georgia systems are designed to give middle class jobs to "teachers" and not educating the kids.

Annette Laing
Annette Laing

That's a strange question. A good teacher at every level is someone with interests, passions, and knowledge, who thus models a love of learning, and who also cares about students as people. I'm not sure that I understand why these two would be mutually exclusive. There's a peculiar idea already that elementary school teachers are glorified babysitters, and its reverse is not that teachers ought to be stern pedagogues, grimly inculcating their charges with "content material". My brother is a former lawyer turned inspiring primary school teacher in England. I'm an academic historian who writes and presents for elementary school kids in Georgia. We are both also parents, and well aware that enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and caring people make the best teachers. Until teachers are better paid and better respected, it will be pretty hard to keep people who check any of these boxes working in education, much less all of them.