What makes a great teacher?
Updated: Oct 8
You can probably think of at least one of your teachers who was absolutely phenomenal. Maybe you were even lucky enough to have been mentored by a ton of amazing teachers! And unfortunately, there were surely a few not-so-great ones in between. But what makes a teacher great? How do the amazing, top-tier teachers do what they do? What separates them from the worst teachers? Were these superhumans just born that way?
Many people assume that teachers are born, not made; that they are destined for this calling. Throughout my time recruiting for the education field, I've heard so many people say, "I could never be a teacher." For some reason, there's a commonly-held notion that either you're a teacher or you aren't. Many would explain that they didn't have the patience, or that they didn't think they could explain their thoughts well. But others recognize that this couldn't really be the case. They hold onto the belief that anyone can become a great teacher with the right tools. Which is it then: nature, nurture, or both? If you're reading this, you are likely considering a career in education. You want to help others, and teaching can fulfill this desire. But do you have what it takes to teach well? Could you become a teacher if you don't feel like one yet?
I struggled with these thoughts myself as I debated on whether or not I was going to study Elementary Education. I was swayed by the commonly-held notion that teachers are teachers from the womb. I wondered if I was "called to teach" and if I would be able to teach well. I hoped that I had what it would take to become like some of the best teachers I had as a kid, but I knew that I would have to develop and strengthen a variety of traits within myself to become a truly great teacher.
The question "What makes a teacher great?" is a very popular one within the field of educational research, and as such, many people have tried to tackle this beast of a question. To get a taste of what was out there, I dug into popular TedTalks and articles centered around this topic. Here's a compiled list of 15 reoccurring character traits I found throughout a variety of these sources:
1) Care. Although fairly obvious, but vital nonetheless. Students can tell when their teacher sincerely cares for them. The love that great teachers show their students can make all the difference.
2) Are Perceptive. Great teachers listen to their students. These teachers notice when their students need their help.
3) Know Their Students. Great teachers get to know who they teach! They build a trusting relationship with their pupils.
4) Continue to Learn. Great teachers always improve their practice, and they are willing to learn something new in front of their students.
5) Take Risks. Great teachers show their students that making mistakes is a part of the learning process.
6) Persevere. Motivated by love for their work and their students, great teachers do not skip the hard parts of teaching: they push through.
7) Empathize. Great teachers try to see from the student's perspective.
8) Are Humble. Their ability to recognize their own faults and shortcomings helps them become better each day. Great teachers collaborate with peers and seek advice from their peers and their students.
9) Respect. This is a two-way street; as respect is given, respect is more often returned.
10) Do. It's not enough to tell; great teachers teach by example.
11) Know Their Stuff. Great teachers are very familiar and comfortable with the content they teach.
12) Are Enthusiastic and Engaging. This enthusiasm is infectious! Learning comes easier to students when their teacher obviously loves it too.
13) Hold High Expectations for Every Student. It can be easy to make excuses for students, but great teachers help every student reach their highest potential.
14) Are Flexible. Great teachers are able to change their plans when something else will work better for their students.
15) Prepare. Great teachers don't waste their students' time because they have planned a clear learning path - from the end to the beginning.
Let's be frank: this is a lot, and it's honestly kind of overwhelming. And this list of 15 traits of great teachers is far from comprehensive. But this being said, I think this quote from Adam Saenz' TedTalk entitled The Power of a Teacher puts a teacher's role in perspective. When speaking to a child, he said "You don't understand this about yourself yet, but you are the most precious thing on the planet. There is no pile of money more valuable than you... [you're] not even in the same category. My job is to lay down my life for you so you will understand your value because when you understand your value, you will live as though your choices matter. You will understand that just like me you have a calling, you have a purpose, you have a destiny. You are on this planet for a reason."
Saenz continued, "When we as educators make that connection with those students, we change every heartbeat they have to the grave."
Plain and simply, the greatest teachers give their all to the students in their classes. So many of the aforementioned attributes that the greatest teachers embody come as a natural result of a genuine and fierce interest in their students' success and wellbeing. The responsibility that teachers have is great, but this can drive their motivation to improve and change.
Perhaps some are more naturally inclined to genuinely care for others, but love is a muscle that can be grown! And Theodore Roosevelt's common quote is true as well: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
As you can recall, your best teachers cared about you. They surely did many other things right as well, but these came with time, experience, and were motivated by a love for their work - including a love for their students.
I adamantly believe anyone can learn how to teach as long as they are willing to love their students.