As the school year comes to a close, I’d like to reverse roles a bit and offer some advice to teachers. This year, I had one of my best teachers ever (no offense to any former teachers reading this) as my math teacher. This was an incredibly challenging course, yet he was able to make it very fun, engaging, and passable. The area where he excelled the most was in making math interesting and connected to the rest of the world. Seriously, some nights I would look forward to doing my math homework as I struggled through ridiculous grammar exercises. Without further ado, here’s (part of) what I think makes a great teacher:
Without this, it is impossible to become a great teacher. If you don’t love your subject, how can you expect your students to? I don’t think this is an issue for most teachers. Still, it is always important to emphasize. Sure, your students will think you’re crazy when you talk about fractions with a look usually reserved for spectator sports, but in the end your enthusiasm rubs off. Never be afraid to love something and show it.
With the onslaught of standardized testing and curriculum this might be getting harder, but it is still very important. Regardless of discipline, creativity is paramount. Sure, you can be a good teacher by taking prepackaged material and efficiently transmitting it. But you can’t be a great one. To be a great teacher, you have to be ready to develop custom, creative lesson plans and projects. You have to have an arsenal of techniques. You need to be a problem-solver. You get the idea. If you don’t, pop into your average commencement address and you’ll hear plenty about this.
Students have complex lives, as do you. If everything is set in stone, you’ll eventually crack. When an A student fails a test, you have to be ready to be flexible. Likewise, you should make yourself available to students for help as much as possible and publicize that fact. If students don’t know you’re available or have office hours, they won’t come and will just struggle through key concepts. Realize that learning is not static and you can’t be either.
I am a firm believer in integrated curriculum and content. Life isn’t in isolated boxes, so learning shouldn’t be either. I often hear the complaint that there isn’t support from administration or other teachers. To that, I say “So what?” Even if you’re the only one integrating across disciplines, even if the other discipline wants nothing to do with you, still do it. My math teacher once spent an entire class investigating the application of logarithms in music: complete with a working string instrument. If this seems hard, just take baby steps: try to integrate another discipline for just one lesson and go from there.
Information can’t be transmitted without a solid connection, and neither can knowledge. You need to form a connection with each and every student. Technically speaking, the knowledge has to form a connection to the student, but you are the representation and medium of that knowledge. Find out what students passions are, and show them how the knowledge connects to them. To do this well, you have to be interesting. Your subject should be your passion, but not your only one. Play an instrument, learn to program, or coach a soccer team: it shows you have something in common with students and helps you to form a connection. Connect these passions back to your subject, and share those connections with your students. Be sure to drop these connections into lessons, fast and furious. Also, appeal to a variety of students. A music reference does nothing for me, but a computer science reference has my interest piqued. (The opposite for other students) You need to connect with students, and to connect you need something to connect with.
There you have it: the top five qualities I see in good teachers. Yes, I gather this is rather ironic considering I’m not even a teacher myself. However, I think I am in a very good position to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, as I am a student. Like it or not, students are the only ones who know if you’ve been successfully. We know all the stuff a test would show, plus the stuff it can’t. Hopefully, you can think about some of these qualities and objectively judge yourself to improve. What did I miss? What are your top 5?