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Top 5 Qualities of Good Teachers

Grad cap

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:

#1 Passion

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.

#2 Creativity

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.

#3 Flexibility

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.

#4 Integrate

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.

#5 Connect

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?

  1. Photo by Zesmerelda on Flickr

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25 Responses to “Top 5 Qualities of Good Teachers”

  1. 1 KarenJanowski

    Fantastic post! The converse is also true - what makes a poor teacher? Lack of passion for subject, no creativity, inflexible, tunnel vision for subject matter and no ability to relate material to students.
    Which side do your teachers want to be on?

  2. 2 arthus

    @Karen: Thanks!

    I think those are definitely the factors which create poor teachers. However, the most useful post would be about those little things which keep teachers from being “great.” I often see teachers with little traits, silly nuances, which distract from the material and end up making the students hate the teacher. And if they hate the teacher they hate the subject.

  3. 3 Alec Couros

    Thanks for this post Arthus. I will pass this along to my own students, my preservice teachers. This is sound advice, well-written, and I want to make sure they understand the needs of students as identified by students.

    All the best.

  4. 4 arthus

    @Alec: Thanks! Hopefully it will prove to be a sound educational resource. :)

  5. 5 Kevin Hodgson

    This is a great post and a great way to get a student perspective out here for us teachers. Your insights were thoughtful and positive and important. I think putting passion first is important because if you don’t want to be there, in the front of the classroom, then your teaching and connection with students will be as clear as day to students.

    You are also right when you write: Like it or not, students are the only ones who know if you’ve been successfully.

    I am glad you had a teacher this year who was inspiring for you. I still remember just a few of my teachers who found ways to engage me by being creative, moving across the curriculum and being there for me when I needed it. Unfortunately, too many were not any of these.

    I try to remember that now, as I am teacher of 11 and 12 year olds.

    Your blog post reminds me of that importance, so I thank you for your reflections.


    Mr. Hodgson
    Southampton, Massachusetts

  6. 6 arthus

    @Kevin: Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you agree that passion comes first.

    My teacher this year really was great, especially for my first year of high school.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. 7 Clay Burell

    Really nice post, Arthus. Why am I wishing you’d give advice to teachers by subject area, rather than undifferentiated? Call me crazy, but I seriously believe literature and language arts is the hardest thing to teach teenagers.

    (And you should violate your “no cross-post” policy and put this you-know-where.)

  8. 8 arthus

    @Clay: Thanks, Clay. I think some general principles (passion/creativity/etc) apply to all subject areas. However, I think other qualities apply to specific disciplines. I’ll keep the idea of some subject-area posts in the book.

    I’d rather right something original for you-know-where. Also, I think it’d be worth having a Skype call with the few remaining to essentially figure out a way to rejuvenate it.

  9. 9 Joseph Thibault

    Just curious, but what do you think the top 5 characteristics of a great student would be? Are they the same?

    I’d say:
    1 engaged (asks questions to find out more AND to keep the conversation going)
    2 invested (wants to learn and knows why they want to learn, what’s the endgame?)
    3 practices (not like rote memorization, but puts new skills and knowledge to use, does something with it)
    4 independent (look at the movement for teachers to chart their personal professional development networks, students have the same things. For special education they’re called IEPs, but I’ve nearly convinced myself that should be the approach for ALL students/learners)
    5 that they’ve read the top 5 qualities of a teacher ;) and could help guide their teachers to adopt those traits.

  10. 10 Jenny

    Interesting list. My school district has a model for writing lesson plans that is broken down as follows:
    Active Learning
    Next Steps (basically connections)

    I’ve paid little attention to this model because of the cliche of the acrostic. However, reading your post and thinking about the traits I consider important in teachers made me rethink it. Obviously, it doesn’t cover everything, but it certainly seems like a reasonable place to start when planning. It requires one to think about possible connections including integrating other areas.

    Thanks for the push to think about this.

  11. 11 arthus

    @Joe: I’d say the top qualities for students are similar, if not the same. Here’s my list:

    1. Interested in their learning.
    2. Engaged in the process.
    3. Invested in the outcome.
    4. Independent through going outside of the requirements.
    5. Creative with strategies for success.

    On a side note, I agree that all students should have a personalized plan similar to an IEP. Some states and schools are heading in this direction, but I think it should really be used for everyone.

    @Jenny: Thanks for commenting! Is that model used for the actual lesson or just for writing the plan? Regardless, I think isn’t perfect. Too many liberties are taking in trying to conform to the cliché of the acrostic.

    Still, I think it has some slight potential, especially by encouraging incorporation of outside material. With some refinement, I agree that it or something similar would definitely be useful for developing lesson plans, particularly for new teachers.

  12. 12 whataslacker

    You all make great points, but I have to wonder about how many school districts seem to suck those qualities out of teachers and not allow them to use their gifts as teachers.

  13. 13 Andrew Graff

    Kudos on the excellent points in your post. I recently completed a teacher training program at La Salle University, and I don’t think I’ve read in all my courses such a succinct and insightful elaboration on what makes an effective, dynamic teacher.

    Yet I write for another reason. As someone with assorted quirks of his own, and who has observed a myriad of them in just as many teachers, I’m wondering if you might elaborate on:

    “I often see teachers with little traits, silly nuances, which distract from the material and end up making the students hate the teacher.”

    I thought it was an interesting comment, but I couldn’t quite find the etiology. How would you differentiate the, shall we say, “deviant traits” of almost-great teachers and great teachers?

  14. 14 arthus

    @whataslacker: True, the district/administration can be a barrier. But the best teachers won’t let the man keep them down.

    @Andrew: Thanks!

    By quirks, I mean silly little things which ultimately jeopardize the teaching: things like requiring all assignments to be hand written, bad time management, etc. – things which are problems in process rather than policy.

  15. 15 Brian Kelley

    I like your list and agree with it; it is a list of virtues as far as I’m concerned.

    Where the process breaks down, in my opinion, is that adults at times lose sight of the fact that kids have not changed…we’ve changed; that is, the adults have changed. I often hear people say that times are different and kids have changed. Yeah, sure, there is improved technology, communication, and things to distract, entertain, and engage the mind…but there is little quite like a positive and healthy student and teacher relationship. And the core kid, the kid inside the world around us has not changed from the kid in 1950, 1960…etc.

    Kids still respond to good people being human. They always did. We all do.

  16. 16 Tracy Rosen

    Yup - this list is the one I’d use. And I definitely agree with your comment, Arthus:

    “True, the district/administration can be a barrier. But the best teachers won’t let the man keep them down.”

    If that does start to happen then it’s time to get out of teaching.

  17. 17 arthus

    @Tracy: I certainly hope we don’t start to lose good teachers due to lax administrative policy… but unfortunately I am already starting to see this. Some of the best teachers are moving into the private sector, because the public is increasingly static.

  18. 18 Tracy Rosen

    The private sector does not offer much of a respite for teachers in Quebec.

    Our private schools receive a certain amount of funding from the government, leaving us all (except for a few uncredited schools) entangled in government reforms! ;)

    One of my favourite quotes is “classroom teachers are the only real agents of school reform…” (Donna M. Marriott).

    Regardless of proscribed curricular and administrative practice, I really believe that teachers who live by the qualities you describe can rise above.

    Another of my favourite lines:

    “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” said by the great Charlie Parker.

  19. 19 Bob Poole

    Great post! Thank you very much for sharing. I have written a posting on my blog referencing this post and how the same qualities apply to great salespeople.

    Thank you!
    Bob Poole

  20. 20 Angela Maiers

    Arthus - Bravo! This is an incredible post, one which I will be using with both students and teachers. I hope that this sparks a much needed conversation in what is really important in education. Without teachers like yours-standards, curriculum, and content become irrelevant. It is the sacred relationship between the teacher and student that has the potential to revolutionize education at all levels. Thank you for sharing!

  21. 21 Hollie H.

    hey, thanks a ton. I’m writting an essay for my sr. english class and your top qualities have helped me a ton. I didn’t know what good qualities were and now i know some. Thanks for the help. O, and by the way i think every teacher should read this, to know that we as students need someone to help us through our school years.

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