What Makes a Good Teacher Great?
Great teachers are needed in education today more than ever. Capable of changing the future, teachers are our greatest hope, directly impacting our children, how they learn, how they think. When you think back to your own education, there are always a few teachers that stand out. Ones that engaged you and connected with you. Ones that made showing up to school each and every day exciting and fun.
No one decides to be a teacher and has aspirations of only being mediocre. No, teachers from day one want to be great. They envision their interactions with their students, what their lesson plans will look like, and how they can, quite literally, change the world one day, one student at a time.
But how does one become a great teacher?
Or, perhaps, are great teachers born that way? Do those extraordinary teachers always know that they are meant to teach, or do they figure it out somewhere along the way?
One thing is for sure, great teachers come in all shapes and sizes. From your brand new teacher right out of college to the retired engineer who decides to go back to work, great teachers show up when they are needed.
And thank goodness for that.
While we might not be able to answer the questions above with total assurance, we can, however, look at the qualities that these teachers have in common. Whether they are innate or learned, these traits show up again and again, embodied in our favorite teachers.
Here are the top ten qualities we think make for an exceptional teacher.
1. A personality that is able to engage students. A great teacher is able to make an impression on students from the moment they walk in the door. But it’s true that not all teachers have the same personality. While some are notably strict and others more relaxed and outgoing, all great teachers know how to make students curious. They are the teachers that students look forward to seeing all day, looking to them to provide them with stimulation. Even from behind a lectern, a great teacher’s skills can come through in the form of incredible storytelling and attentive listening. The goal is to not change ones personality in order to fit a certain idea of what a great teacher should act like, but rather it’s taking that personality and making it magnetic.
2. Determined focus and attention to lesson plans. Lesson plans might not be a teacher’s favorite part of the job (although it is for many), but it’s an important part of being a great teacher. Preparation in the form of lesson plans directs a teacher’s actions. And while improv is a welcome addition to any classroom, it’s at its best when it’s riffing off of a stable foundation. Great teachers work tirelessly to perfect lesson plans, to figure out which order makes the most sense, where a specific quote should be added, when a relevant experiment or activity can come into play. The idea of a “perfect” lesson plan is one that all great teachers strive for, but they understand that it’s impossible to achieve. It’s this game of always working to plan something just a bit differently and see how it goes that keeps great teachers in the classroom year after year.
3. A positive attitude coupled with high expectations. All teachers are going to have bad days - that’s unavoidable. But great teachers face those difficulties that come with bad days with a positive attitude. But be sure, it’s not a blasé attitude. It’s an incredibly passionate perspective that is guided by high expectations. Great teachers are the ones that optimistically hope for the best, while knowing when it’s appropriate to lay down the law and speak up when needed. A great teacher is a force to be reckoned with.
4. One eye on the curriculum and one eye on the students. A curriculum is brought in to a teacher’s life to help guide and focus. Great teachers know the curriculum inside and out and have every intention to follow it. At least, for the most part. Why? Because great teachers know when something isn’t quite right and they’re willing to occasionally stray in order to do what needs to be done. Curriculum, often implemented by a group of people no longer in the classroom, can become outdated and, at times, irrelevant. When a great teacher sees students falling behind or needing extra attention on a specific part of what they are teaching, they make modifications to the curriculum in place to be sure that each student is getting exactly what they need. At the end of the day, a great teacher always puts their students first.
5. An open line of communication with parents. Parents are a student’s greatest teacher, which is why great teachers are sure to utilize them as much as possible. Keeping the lines of communication open between homes and classrooms allows teachers to get the support they need. The more a positive relationship can be created between a student’s two worlds, the better chance they have for success. And success and great teachers go hand-in-hand.
6. An ability to keep classroom discipline in check. While there are those memorable “fun” teachers, very few of those also make the list of “great” teachers. Fun teachers are a different breed, and don’t always have the success they desired success or a reputation that can get them too far. A fun teacher’s classroom is loud and boisterous, whereas a great teacher’s class is attentive and focused. And it’s not because a great teacher doesn’t want to have fun, they just know that students learn their best in an environment that allows for it.
7. A firm grasp of the subject and a desire to continue learning. It’s no big surprise that great teachers understand what they are teaching - they have to! But what separates the good from the great is continued education. Great teachers never stop learning. They are always looking for ways to not only improve their skills as a teacher, but to also broaden their horizon within their discipline. This desire to keep learning is deeply embedded into great teachers; it’s what makes them passionate about what they are teaching and it rubs off on their students’ passion to learn.
8. Time management skills that allow for efficient work. A great teacher knows that a teacher’s time is precious. They aren’t afraid to look for the most efficient way to get things done and they know when to draw the line. It’s a short story: great teachers cannot be exhausted teachers.
9. An understanding of the importance of teaching. There is gravity and weight that come with the role of teacher. Whether the salary or recognition reflects it or not, great teachers are driven by this fact. What a teacher does each and every day in the classroom has a direct impact on the future. Great teachers want, and do, leverage this opportunity.
10. A desire to build real relationships with students. Each and every student is unique. They all have their own stories and come to the classroom with different needs. Unless a teacher builds a relationship with students, some of these needs will never be met - or even known about. Great teachers take the time to invest in their students. It’s not always easy, but it’s crucial to great teaching. Of course it’s easier to show up to teach and treat it like any other 9 to 5 job, but great teachers never do. They look forward to interacting with their students - and their students look forward to interacting with them.
Being a great teacher isn’t easy. At times it seems impossible to do everything you need to while juggling the needs and expectations of the students. But for all of those impossible days come the incredible, monumental days when you realize that you just changed a student’s life.
And that’s what great teachers live for.