What Makes a Good Teacher?

If you read the title of this post, and you are hoping that I am going to give you all the answers – like a recipe of ingredients you need to become a good teacher – then you might want to stop reading now… because that is not going to happen. I will hopefully give you some things to think about, but there is nothing definitive here.

So, I got started thinking about the topic of what makes a good teacher after reading this article in the New York Times last week. <take a break from my post and read the article now… I will be here when you get back>

Honestly, I was a little torn after reading the article… I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with the writer or not, and the more I turned it around in my brain, the more unclear I became. And then I read this post by one of my colleagues <hopefully she won’t mind me calling attention to her minor meltdown>, and it all became a little clearer for me.

So, I am now going to attempt to present my thoughts on the topic of what makes a good teacher in a somewhat comprehensible format…

“…the vast majority of teachers I know struggle period to period, day to day, desperately hoping that we are making some academic headway with any of our students.”

And while I agree with Mr. Okun that teachers sometimes struggle, I also would like to point out that along with the struggles come moments of clarity, moments that teaching makes sense, moments of pride at our students’ accomplishments, and moments of awe when students reach and even exceed the expectations we have set for them. Although teaching may sometimes feel like an uphill battle, and there are days that we may feel like collapsing and falling over never to rise again, it just takes a thank you e-mail from a previous student to give us that energy to stand back up and keep fighting the good fight.

“A lot of young teachers come to our school with the hopes of changing lives. A lot of these same teachers quit (or leave for the suburbs) after one or two years, realizing that only the most elite, dedicated and skilled teachers are capable of performing the dramatic student transformations romantically depicted in teacher memoirs and Hollywood movies.”

Sadly, Mr. Okun is correct. We lose many promising teachers after the first couple of years because teaching is HARD work. It is sometimes agonizing to look out at the students in your classroom and see so many of them that are not living up to their potential. It makes us sad to know that the majority of our students would rather be doing just about anything than sitting in our class (on most days), and I think this is where one of the KEY components of being a good (and perhaps even great) teacher comes in… to be a good teacher you have to cultivate a RELATIONSHIP with each of your students. Do my students love coming to my English class every day? I would be lying (and a little delusional) if I answered, “Yes!” But I can’t. We have been writing an essay for the past week and a half (which is something the kids hate doing); it is not a creative writing assignment. It is not tons of fun. So I know my students have not been excited to come in to class every day, BUT they do it because they know I am happy to see them, they know I will greet them at the door, they know that I will not yell at them, they know I will ask about their weekend… in short, they know I care. You may be wondering why this matters, so let me tell you. Once my students know I am in their corner, they will do their assignments because I ask them to, they will be respectful to me because I am to them and they do not want to upset me. Will we have our bad days? Sure, but we will get through them and move on to better times. Will I have a Hollywood movie based on my great escapades as a teacher… I am going to guess – NO – but I am okay with that because I think what we do for our students is enough.

“The major sacrifice resulting from my reduction in effort and time (50-hour weeks) was that I no longer tried to engage all the students in all of my classes. During my first two years, I spent a disproportionate amount of time attempting to catalyze the seven or so students who expressed no interest in my class or school in general.”

Although, I can sympathize with Mr. Okun’s predicament, I am not ready to give up on any of my students. Yes, there are students in my class that are less engaged than others. There are students in my classes with elementary school reading levels and a few at college levels. This is where working smarter and not harder comes in to play – differentiating, narrating lessons, working in groups, having students peer and self-assess, and basically setting my class up so that I am not the purveyor of all knowledge. Setting up lessons like these can be a lot of work on the “front-end” but it allows me to spend my class time amongst the students instead of at the front of the room talking at them. <and by the way, I am not saying you should never lecture or teach from the front of the room; there are certainly times when it is warranted and even necessary>

“Will this feeling of inadequacy ever go away – or at least abate just a bit? Am I destined to live with this sense of “falling short” for my entire life?”

I would like to assure my colleague that once she has “x” number of years under her belt, everything will fall in place, but I can’t. Regardless if we are new or experienced teachers, we have bad days, we feel dumb at times, and there are even times when we wonder, “Why am I doing this?” That is when it is time to give yourself a break and realize you are not alone, pick up a book , watch a movie, go for a jog or whatever makes you feel better and take a REST. Your students will be there when you get back. 🙂

I have successfully rambled on about teaching and have not given you much that is concrete, so… what do I think makes a good/great teacher?

  • someone who cultivates positive relationships with her students
  • someone who cares and takes the time to reflect on her teaching
  • someone who perseveres even when the going gets rough
  • someone who listens
  • someone who treats her students as people and gives them their respect too
  • someone who is flexible and is willing to fall behind on her lesson plans if the students need more time to understand a concept
  • someone who follows through (if you say you are going to do it, then you need to)
  • someone who continually learns new things and isn’t afraid to try them out in class
  • someone who shares with her colleagues
  • someone who gives students feedback on their progress frequently
  • someone who is okay with coming in a little early or staying a little late if the students need extra help
  • someone who realizes that she is going to have good days and bad days, so she keeps her head up, rants to her friends if necessary (or on her blog), and keeps going because she knows she is not perfect, but that she will, and has, made a difference in students’ lives

By the way, I used the pronoun “her” because “he” is used so often to refer to men and women alike, and I thought you men could handle a little feminism. 🙂

If you have made it this far in the post, then you might as well finish strong by leaving a comment about what you think makes a good teacher. Thanks for reading and have a good day!

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4 Comments on “What Makes a Good Teacher?”

  1. John Brown Says:

    I really enjoy reading your thoughts on education because you do a great job of thinking things through and effectively presenting your conclusions. Based on my years in education I particularly value three of the items on your list of what makes a good teacher. I think that building positive relationships, listening, and giving students respect make the teacher-student relationship a cooperative one where students, recognizing that you really are on their side, will work with you as you try to help them.

    There is an element of teaching that I observed repeatedly that is most likely innate. That element is fear. A significant percent of teachers are afraid of their students or at least of what the actions of their students might be. Good teachers are comfortable with their students and generally enjoy them and are therefore able to form positive relationships. Those who harbor fear, on the other hand, inevitably end up in power struggles with their classes.

    One final thought relates to the environment in which the teacher who wrote the New York Times article works. “Teaching” in an inner-city school is completely unrelated to “teaching” in an upper middle class suburban school. I only worked in an inner-city school as a student teacher many years ago. I knew then that I did not have what it takes to deal with that environment for an extended period of time.

  2. Melissa Says:

    I agree with your posting about student and teacher relationships. I am currently taking a graduate level class called Teaching as a Professional. Last week we were asked to comment on the idea of novice teachers versus expert teachers. The qualities geared more toward the expert teacher in many of our discussions really focused on the relationships that these teachers have with their students. Instruction is most effective when actually learning can take place. Actual learning can only take place when there is a strong teacher-student relationship in place. Students that feel comfortable sharing their successes, opinions, fears, questions, failures, and mistakes are more engaged than the students that are just doing the work so that they will not get in trouble or fail. The relationships that teachers create with their students isj very important.

  3. CWhillock Says:

    In the class I’m taking on the Philosophy of Educational Computing, our professor posed the same question, “what makes a good teacher”. Being a doctoral course on educational computing, I think she expected most of us to discuss the importance of the use of technology, however we didn’t! We echoed much of what you said here.

    We’ve reviewed several “Hollywood” movies on hero teachers. What made them good teachers? Well, it seems they were willing to give their lives, to work 24 hours a day, to take risks and to break rules to motivate and inspire their students. They developed relationships with them and showed they were willing to go the extra mile for the success of the student.

    Can we be a “Hollywood” hero teacher? Most definitely not. That is why many of our new teachers become disillusioned and leave the profession after two years. When was the last time you saw a hero Hollywood teacher administer a TAKS test or other state exam that threatened their teaching certificate if they made a mistake? Never!

    However, one common thread of all of these movies, and of all of what we do daily, is the development of the relationship! Not the technology we use or don’t use. Our students live in a technology rich society. Yes, they perceive us to be less smart than they are if we don’t know how to use the technologies they take for granted. However, that doesn’t make us “good teachers”.

    I hinted to this same topic in my posting on 9/22, http://catwhillock.wordpress.com/2007/09/22/social-networking/ , but you’ve done a fantastic job with your posting! I love to read your blog site, keep posting!

  4. barefoottrader Says:

    Thank you for being honest.
    If I had my choice, I feel it should be the students who
    elect the ‘teacher(s) of the year’. Subsequently these chosen teachers would the ones eligible to earn a raise based on student evaluation and productivity within the classroom.
    Unfortunally, today, only tenure & internal politics are what really determine a teachers paycheck, regardless of skill, productivity and contribution.
    Union mentality rears its unjust head again!


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