10 Characteristics Of A Great Teacher

Some teachers still have trouble showing vulnerability–especially if they feel unable to keep up with the incredible demands of teaching.

What Are The Characteristics Of A Great Teacher?

by TeachThought Staff

What makes a teacher strong?

What differentiates the best from the rest? There’s no shortage of bodies (some dramatically misguided) attempting to solve this riddle.  The answers are nebulous at best. Below is a list of traits, some of which may be familiar but many of which will never show up on any sort of performance review.  Check them out and see what you think.

10 Characteristics Of A Great Teacher

1. They demonstrate confidence

Confidence while teaching can mean any number of things. It can range from having confidence in your knowledge of the material being learned to having confidence that your teaching acumen is second to none. Though these two (and many other) ‘confidences’ are important the most critical confidence a teacher can have is much more general and tougher to describe than that.

It’s the confidence that you know you’re in the right spot doing what you want to be doing and that no matter what transpires, having that time to spend with those young learners is going to be beneficial both for them and for yourself. It’s clear to students when teachers exude this feeling. Working in schools is difficult and stressful, and also immensely rewarding.

But if you’re not confident that you’re in the right place when you’re teaching, you’re probably not.

2. They know how to take care of themselves

They know themselves–how to set boundaries. Their limits and strengths and areas for growth and when and where they need support, and when and where they can support others around them.

See also Sustainable Teaching and Is Great Teaching Sustainable?

3. They understand student motivation

Student motivation matters.

Just as each student has a different set of interests, every student will have a correspondingly different set of motivators. Many (or most) students will be able to reconcile their own outlook and ambitions with what’s happening in the class and take motivation from that relationship. Unfortunately, some students will rely simply on external motivators. Still, worse, we’ve all run into students who really can’t find a relationship between what makes them tick and what’s happening in the classroom around them.

These students run the risk of disengaging altogether. This is where the master teacher knows each of her students and helps them to contextualize the work they’re doing to allow the student to make a connection with something in his realm of interest. Teachers who can’t help students make this connection need to rethink what’s going on. After all, what IS the point of work in which a student finds no interest and for which he can make no connection?

And perhaps most importantly, they don’t make learning–shortcomings, failures, etc.–punitive.

4. They’re people, not heroes

Yes, all teachers are heroes. Now let’s move beyond the platitude to what this really means. Some teachers still have trouble showing any sort of vulnerability or fallibility. These teachers will expend immense amounts of energy hiding the fact they’re frustrated or, worse, unable to keep up with the incredible demands of teaching.

Why? Other teachers get tied into logical knots to avoid admitting “I have no idea what the answer to your question is.” But teachers who genuinely connect with students are the ones who aren’t afraid to show emotions in class, who can admit that they aren’t in fact the repository of all knowledge.

Of course, nobody wants to be a wallowing, blubbering mess in class, but what better way to teach empathy than to give the students someone to empathize with when we’re having a bad day? What better way to foster collaboration and to teach that it’s okay not to know something than to say “I don’t know, let’s find that out!”?

5.  They’re technologically capable.

Let’s not belabor this point, after all, plenty of ink (or pixels as the case may be!) has already been spilled on this topic. As time passes, the statement “But I’m not very good with _________.”(fill in the blank with any number of technological devices) sounds ever more like “But I’m not very good with a telephone.”

The only time the sentiment above is acceptable is if it’s followed immediately by “…but I’m very willing to learn!” After all, we wouldn’t accept such weak rationalizations from students regarding their work. As a profession, we lose credibility whenever we allow excuses like this to go unchallenged. Enough said.

6. They model risk-taking

We encourage our students to be risk-takers; we’d all like to be risk-takers, but let’s be honest, the nature of the beast is that many teachers are not naturally risk-takers.  This point goes hand in hand with showing vulnerability, the teacher who’s willing to go out on a limb, to try something new, to be ‘wacky’ in the name of pedagogy earns the respect of students, even if the snickers seem to say something different.

No matter the success or failure of the risk taken, the experience will certainly be memorable for the kids in that class, and isn’t that what we’re aiming for?  After all, as the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

7. They focus on what’s important

See: Teaching What Matters: The 40/40/40 Rule

Whether it’s worrying about who’s late to class, collecting every little piece of work to ‘gather marks’ or spending too much time lecturing to the class to ‘cover the material,’ or teaching what’s most important, there’s no shortage of ways to distract teachers from what’s important. Strong teachers know that things like chronic tardiness or skipping class are usually symptoms of larger issues and as such, spending precious time and energy trying to ‘fix’ the issue rarely works.  That’s what administrators and counselors are for.

They also understand that efficient and effective assessment means eliminating busy work. At the same time, giving targeted, meaningful feedback and engaging the students, connecting the material to their interests and passions, is the surest way to maximize learning. There’s plenty of minutiae and enough CYA (Cover Your…) in education to easily get sidetracked, strong teachers keep their focus on what’s important.

8. They focus on students, not administrators

The best teachers don’t do what they’re told.

This trait is tied in with many of the others listed above. While obviously needing to adhere to critical school and district policies while teaching in a way that isn’t directly at odds with administrators, strong teachers do their job without worrying too much about “what the principal will think.” They’ll take risks, their classes may be noisy, messy, or both.  Their activities may ‘break’ something (usually the rules) to spark excitement or engagement.

They understand that learning is not a neat and tidy activity and that adhering too closely to rules and routines can drain from students the natural curiosity, spontaneity, and passion that they bring to school.  Worrying about what the boss may think can be draining and restrictive in any job, and teaching is no exception.

In fact, the best teachers live by the code “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

9. They inspire

Their energy, curiosity, passion, and/or mindset are contagious. They don’t have to be ‘always on’ and full of vibrancy, but people–especially students–enjoy being around them. Or at least respect them and believe they are acting in their best interest.

They inspire themselves, other teachers, students, and, when appropriate, the community where their students live.

10. They use their life experience.

Having some life experience outside the classroom and outside the realm of education is invaluable for putting learning into context and keeping school activities in perspective. Teachers who have traveled, worked in other fields, played high-level sports, or enjoyed any number of other life experiences bring outlooks other than ‘teacher’ to the profession.

From understanding the critical importance of collaboration and teamwork to being able to answer that ageless senior math question “when are we going to use this?”, educators who have spent significant time and energy on alternate pursuits come to the profession with a deep understanding of where school fits into the bigger picture of life.