What makes a teacher great? Being a teacher, I have some pretty strong opinions on the topic. I think back to my own school days, as everyone does, and pick out those teachers who stand out. Why were they the best?
In elementary school, it was my sixth grade teacher who made the greatest impact on me. He was funny, knowledgeable, and compassionate. Learning in his classroom was fun, but the standards were high. He made it clear that we would be well prepared for Junior High by the time he was done with us, and we were. He also had a more playful side, and on blustery days when there was no outdoor recess, he played endless hands of blackjack with his eleven year old charges.
Later on, I had Dr. T. He also had high standards. Really high. He, too, knew his field inside and out. He pushed us to think beyond our own teenage existence and orchestrated opportunities for us to connect with Hester Prynne, Lady Macbeth, and the Joads. He took us to the university library and taught us how to find reference materials (pre-computer era) and write research papers. He was a stickler for details, and he taught me to be a critical reader and ruthless editor. Sometimes I wished he wasn’t so demanding, but when I arrived at college, it all became clear. He saved me. As a result of his demands, I could write.
As an educator myself, I have some thoughts of what makes a teacher great. First, are their students engaged with the topic? This sounds easy, but when you have to teach a particular curriculum, which you may or may not be excited about yourself, it can sometimes be a challenge. Not every student is going to be thrilled to learn the quadratic equation, just as not every student will find joy in poetry. Your job as an educator is to sell it, and it can be a tough sell. Knowledge of technology can help a lot, as can having an open mind when it comes to learning new teaching techniques and trends.
A second hallmark of great teachers is that they entertain. Kids are media savvy, and many have short attention spans. When I was a kid, a filmstrip was a thrill. Those days are gone, which is why I believe that great teachers are also entertainers. Infusing lessons with great stories, a little drama, the occasional joke, and a spirit of fun can go a long way toward student learning. If I’m being entertained, I don’t mind going along for the ride, even if I didn’t sign up to be there in the first place. Think back to Schoolhouse Rock. My generation could sing the preamble to the Constitution, explain the function of a conjunction, and tell you the types of adverbs all because a little learning was squeezed into our Saturday morning cartoon lineup. Genius.
Finally, great teachers know their stuff and know their students. I have to understand my content inside and out, and I have to develop multiple ways of sharing it with my students. I’m always assessing what they understand and what they still need. I’m watching them, reading their work, listening to their conversations, and thinking about the next step. I gather resources, put them together into learning experiences, and evaluate how effective they were. I reassess and determine where to go from there. You really can’t get that out of a teacher’s guide.
Great teachers are a little different than the rest of the world. They may not have the prettiest classrooms, and other teachers may not always understand exactly what they’re doing, but their students love to learn, and ultimately that is what it’s all about.