In a recent professional development day, we were asked to begin by brainstorming the qualities of a good teacher.
If you’ve ever been in a staff room, I’m sure you’ll agree this question sparked a lot of engaged discussions. Teachers aren’t shy about sharing their opinions on these matters, I’ve found.
Well, at the end of the activity I slyly tucked away the flip chart paper on which we scribbled all our notes, knowing it’d be a great idea for my blog post topic of the week.
So, below, for all you teachers (and I’m sure university students!) out there brainstorming qualities of a great teacher – look no further!
Qualities of a Good Teacher
1. A Focus on Learning
This is the one I suggested to the group first up.
I find that some people first entering the classroom (Including myself once!) tend to lack focus.
They want to focus on being a fun teacher or being the light of a child’s life. They have great aspirations and ambitions for what a good teacher is
… and it all comes crashing down. Fast.
Well, before long, we teachers realize that fun is important. And so is inspiration and aspiration. But right at the core, when you strip away all the other layers, lies one important goal:
To ensure students learn.
A clear-eyed focus on learning helps us develop quality lessons every time.
It ensures we don’t go off script and realize ten weeks into the term that … wait, I’m not even half way through the curriculum! I’ve got a parent-teacher interview coming up and little Johnny has shown no progress!
And … perhaps worse … my students don’t respect me!
Cue point 2 …
2. Advanced Group Management Skills
The second key quality of a quality teacher is their ability to manage groups of children.
I know these are unconventional ones to start with (yes, I’ll get to the clichés like ‘Patience’ in a moment).. But I think these first two points are really at the heart of what teachers learn their job is all about in the first few years.
So … group management.
It’s probably the number 1 skill new teachers realize they need if they’re going to succeed beyond the first term.
The tiny skills of knowing where to stand in the classroom, how to set table arrangements, use inflection in your voice, project an identity and project authority are huge qualities that make a good teacher.
An authority in the space of classroom management is Michael Linsen of Smart Classroom Management – I’d recommend him to any new teacher seeking tips on how to develop the qualities of a good manger of students. I first came across him on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast and have recently been finding myself going back to his blog posts a lot.
3. Power over your Voice
This quality is a part of the previous two.
In other words, power over the voice is essential for:
- Teaching students well; and
- Managing students well
For teaching well, having power over your voice is about knowing how to pause to let content sink in, emphasize the important terms, and express interest in the topic. You need to be an expressive speaker, you need to be engaging, understand how to use pitch and pause for effect.
Then, there’s the ability to use your voice for classroom management.
Here’s Michael Linsen again:
“Yelling, shouting, barking orders, and the like is antagonistic. It creates a you-against-them relationship rather than one grounded in respect and rapport. The result is an unlikable teacher whose only means of influence is intimidation.”
Okay, now for the big one. Patience.
It’s the first one most teachers would come up with when you ask them: what’s the top quality of a good teacher?
Because you use it. Every. Single. Day.
When you’re marking your 23rd Essay on the exact same topic today. When you’re struggling – hard – to get a student to understand a concept (that seems so insanely easy to you).
If you haven’t go patience, you aren’t going to make it as a teacher. You … will … hate … it.
So, Teachers Need Patience: it’s a cliché for a reason.
I learned this fast as a university teacher.
I make mistakes. I made many, many, many more in my first 2-3 years. But, I still make mistakes.
And usually, the mistakes I make are done under pressure.
To use a Tennis term, I don’t tend to make unforced errors anymore.
But when I’ve got 169 assignments to mark in 13 days (starting on the 13th of this month – Lord give me strength), there’s a good chance I’m going to make some mistakes under pressure – or ‘forced errors’ in tennis terms.
It’s the pressure of the job.
And when students come up to me and say “Mate, you messed up!” … I’m going to need the humility to say “Yes, sorry, let me look at that again for you.”
To quote the great Kendrick Lamar says: “Be Humble.”
6. Willingness to Learn
And this one, I think, builds on the previous.
It’s a “the more you know the more you realize you don’t know anything” situation.
I’m about to come up to my 9th year as an educator. And I don’t know squat. I teach teachers and I am still aware that I’ve got a mountain of stuff to learn.
Teachers need to be learning constantly.
Earlier, I mentioned that I have a new blog that I go to for classroom management advice. 9 years in, and I’m still learning a ton of information from that site. It’s never going to end.
If you’re too stubborn to realize you’ve got a lot to learn, you’re going to be a terrible teacher.
So, be willing to learn. Endlessly.
7. Desire to Help
Here’s a more upbeat one.
I think the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is that I genuinely want to help my students out.
When a student needs help after the bell has rung at the end of the day, a good teacher is not the sort of person to tell them “Sorry, school’s out.”
And I think anyone who feels that way is going to really hate their job.
At the heart of this point is the reality that teaching is more than a job, it’s a vocation (sorry of the clichés here … it’s hard to write this post without them!). But yep, it’s true. You’ve got to be a person who really gives a lot of themselves to their job.
In return, you’ll get more than just a paycheck – you’ll get a community.
8. A Focus on Social Justice
Here’s something that unites us.
We teachers tend to care about justice. A lot.
Kids fail because their parents aren’t feeding them a nutritious diet. Kids fail because they have dyslexia, or struggle with academics. Kids fail for all sorts of reasons out of their control. This can’t be a dog-eat-dog world where people are entirely to blame for their lot in life. And on the front lines of teaching, we live that reality every day.
That’s what makes teachers – in general – deeply focused on social justice. We understand the importance of having a community that digs in and bands together to get everyone over the finish line.
Point 8 previous point naturally leads to Point 9.
We’re empathetic through and through.
It’s hard not to be. Working in close quarters with kids who go through pretty tough situations, your heart has to go out to these kids.
As a university teacher, I see it in my adult students, too. They’re single mothers digging deep to get a degree while working full-time and struggling to pay the bills.
Everyone’s got their own stuff going on. Life’s tough. And we see it in our jobs every single day.
10. Pedagogical Knowledge
A good teacher knows how to teach.
‘Pedagogy’ is just that: the ability to teach.
At university, all teachers are taught a concept called pedagogical content knowledge.
It goes something like this:
A good teacher knows how to teach (pedagogy) and what they’re teaching (content).
Let’s start with pedagogy.
Pedagogy is everything from the art of breaking concepts down into bite-sized chunks to knowing when students’ brains are saturated and it’s time to take a break.
And good teachers have it. They know what needs to be done to get students from A to B.
11. Content Knowledge
The second half of the pedagogical content knowledge equation is, clearly, content.
If you’re a science teacher, you damn well better understand Newton’s Third Law.
It’s as simple as that.
But it’s one more quality of a good teacher: you’ve got to have a bit of smarts about you. You need to know your content inside out so that your students learn the correct information.
So if you’re a university student reading this post, you might want to ask yourself: If I want to be a good teacher, do I need to brush up on my content?
If so, you’ve got a few years to work on it before you stand in front of a classroom and start teaching them Newton’s Third Law.
12. Strong Work Ethic
My mother was a teacher and she taught me this.
With four kids and a full-time teaching job, she’d come home, cook us dinner, then head straight to her office to plan lessons for the next day.
Teaching can give you a demanding workload. There’s no slacking off. You’re switched on, planning lessons, and digging deep and working hard even when you’re tired in order to get the work done.
As a university teacher, this is no more evident than when it’s my marking period. My contract gives me 25 minutes to mark and give feedback on a 2000-word essay. Then, I turn around and do it again. And again. 169 times.
Good teachers know how to work hard to get the job done.
If you’ve got stringent ideas about how your lessons are going to play out, you’ll have a lot to learn!
Working with students – and especially children – will throw up new problems. All the time. Endlessly.
A good teacher is a flexible teacher. They need to be able to think on their feet and make changes to their lesson plans based on the needs of their students. When a student doesn’t understand the way you’re teaching something, you’ll need to change it on the spot.
14. Generosity / Sharing
The teaching profession is a sharing profession.
We understand that our jobs are tough – really tough. And that there’s a lot of hard work and preparation that goes into writing lessons.
So, teachers like to share.
When you’re starting out you’ll be relying on your senior colleagues a lot. They’ll point you in the right direction, share their resources and ensure you’re on the right track.
Teachers aren’t in competition with each other. We want to see all children succeed, no matter whose class they’re in. So, we’re usually very willing to share our content for the good of all.
15. Commitment to Local Communities
Teaching is a community-oriented profession.
We’re not just teachers of individuals. We’re teachers of the next shop assistants, lawyers, bakers and doctors.
Any teacher who has worked in a community for a good 20 years will know what I mean. You have a connection to just about everyone in your community.
And, you’ll be able to turn up to community events and be welcomed with open arms.
You need to be community-minded to be a great teacher. You need to care about your community because you’re at the heart of it. You’ll be committed to its success.
And the great thing is, you’ll get to see your community grow and thrive over time and know you were part of it.
16. Professionalism under Pressure
There will be times when parents and superiors will put you under a lot of pressure. Your students may also cause a lot of stress and strain on you. As a university professor, I have the added job of students sometimes applying the heat on me about their course.
You need to be a consummate professional when you’re under pressure. Especially from parents. You need to respond to aggressive behavior with calmness. You will need to help explain and reassure your parents and students about how things are going.
And of course, you’ll need to respect and take on board the concerns and input of everyone – all while being an absolute professional.
17. Resilience & Sense of Humor
Great teachers can laugh. They can laugh with (not at) their students. And they can laugh at themselves and at their situations.
Fortunately, when I taught in Kindergarten, it was a very funny place. Kids really do say and do the funniest things.
But at times, things go wrong. Your lessons will come undone due to circumstances well beyond your control. Children will wet their pants, call you “Mommy” and make wildly inappropriate comments (which are, usually, hilarious in their own way).
And all the way through all of this, you can’t fall apart.
You’ve got to be able to smile and laugh your way through.
Or else … you’ll go mad.
18. Positivity & Enthusiasm
Your students and their parents don’t care that your marriage is falling apart. They don’t care that you’re mourning the death of a family member or you have had a medical scare over the weekend.
Teachers need to paint on their happy face and march into the classroom every day knowing they have a job to do.
In the classroom, you need to put all your effort into creating a positive learning environment. It’s your job to set the scene. Your behavior and mannerisms are picked up by your students.
You need to show your students that you’re interested and love the idea of teaching and learning this particular packet of information you’ll be covering today.
If you’re flat for the day, the students will suffer. So, put on that happy, entertaining and enthusiastic face for the sake of the little learners in your care.
Good teachers are kind teachers.
When a student has made a mistake or been rude to you, you can’t call them a jerk. You can’t talk down to them or give them the cold shoulder for a week as a punishment for their behavior.
You need to get down to their level and let them know you forgive them, and you believe in their ability to do better.
There’s no room in the classroom for a teacher who hasn’t got the wellbeing, happiness and success of their students in their minds. Even when a student is coming across as a complete and utter jerk … you’ve got to be kind. It’s your job.
20. Research Skills
Yes, I know … I’m a university teacher so I have my skin in the game for this point.
But, I believe it to be true.
Quality research skills are central to being a good educator.
For one thing, you need to be able to gather the information that’s true, accurate and most appropriate for your students to learn. There’s no point getting the first thing you found on google and teaching that. Who knows if it’s wrong?
Instead, you’ve got to know who and what sources to trust. I usually start with trusted senior teachers in my school. How can they give me quality information about the content I’m teaching?
I recommend starting to gather a portfolio of trustworthy sources now – including websites designed to support teachers as well as quality books on teaching and learning.
21. Quality Teachers Keep their Commitments
Do what you say you’re going to do.
If a teacher promises a student they’re going to follow up on something, they’d better follow up!
Our students really do hang onto our every word. If we promise something, they’re going to remember if you followed through.
The same thing goes for commitments to colleagues. If you tell a colleague you’ll cover lunch duty for them, it’s your responsibility to keep your word.
We rely on each other an awful lot in this profession. So we’ve got to set and keep our commitments when we make them.
22. Organization Skills are a Must
With 25 – 30 students in any classroom, you need to be able to walk in there and know what you’re doing every time.
And you need to know Plan B and Plan C as well.
What happens if a student finishes super early? What happens if a student finishes late? What happens if the whole class doesn’t understand? What happens if …?
Anything can happen.
Then, you’ve got the bigger picture.
How far through the curriculum are you? Will you be able to get it all completed by the end of the school year? What’s your plan?
23. You’ve got to be Mildly Insane
And last but not least, all of us in the professional development meeting agreed: you’ve got to be mildly insane to be a good teacher.
You need to put yourself through all-nighters to get those reports written and essays marked. You’ve got to keep on going when it’s the last thing you want to do.
And you constantly think about quitting, but then remember … hey, the good outweighs the bad. And we’re all mildly insane together!
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]