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What Makes a Good Teacher?

May 23, 2018

In the conversation about closing the United States’ widening gap in student achievement, much attention has been focused on policy, funding, test scores, and parent involvement. Research shows that each of these factors indeed plays a part in determining how much a student learns; however, improving student success starts directly in the classroom—with great, quality teachers.

Good teachers make a tremendous difference in the lives of students, from improving academic success to providing emotional and social support—and the research backs it up.

  • One study found that, in a single year, the top 10 percent of teachers impart three times as much knowledge to their students as the bottom 10 percent of teachers do.
  • Quality of teaching more directly affects student learning than family income, school attended, or class size, according to another study, and the effect is stronger for disadvantaged and minority students.
  • Teachers have two to three times the impact of any other school-related factor on student success in reading and math tests—surpassing the impacts of school services, facilities, and leadership.

But what is a good teacher? And what are the qualities of such a teacher? According to educators, students, and education researchers, good teachers:

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  • Have a grounding in pedagogy
  • Establish their own standards for success
  • Build a community of democracy and respect in the classroom
  • Participate in a community of teachers who inspire them to keep learning, shifting, and improving
  • Are fully committed to their classrooms and students

1. Having a Grounding in Pedagogy

Pedagogy, simply put, refers to the method and practice of teaching. A given teacher’s pedagogy will determine a number of things:

  • How a teacher responds to student challenges, unexpected situations, and apathy
  • How a teacher introduces difficult subjects, holds students’ attention, and makes a given lesson relevant
  • The ability of a teacher to adapt the presentation of instructional content to suit the needs of his or her students
  • How a teacher interacts with students of varying levels of academic ability
  • The quality of a teacher’s interactions—both social and emotional—with his or her students

A strong pedagogical grounding is not something that future teachers are born with; they develop a pedagogical understanding and practice over time through high-quality teacher preparation programs, ongoing teacher training, experience in the classroom, and discussions with other teachers. Professional development that expands a teacher’s range of teaching strategies and content knowledge can also boost a teacher’s impact on student achievement.

For would-be teachers to give themselves the best shot at becoming a great teacher someday, they should give careful thought to where they begin their own pedagogical training.

On-the-job learning and performance

While comprehensive education is an important foundation for teaching, a strong resume is not necessarily the most reliable indicator of a high-quality teacher. A great teacher is more effectively defined by his or her success and performance in the classroom.

2. Establishing Their Own Standards for Success

Favorable metrics are one thing. Real student progress is another. Rather than adhering too closely to predetermined markers of student “success,” good teachers also articulate for themselves the higher-minded differences they hope to make in the lives of their students.

In one way or another, this comes back to those findings regarding the importance of teacher quality in the lives of students: if teachers are aware of such findings and take them seriously, they can begin to chart out the ways they want to use their unique influence in the classroom.

Individual missions will look different among teachers, but many will take into account the following factors:

  • Development of students’ curiosity
  • Students’ trust in their own ability to learn and improve
  • Understanding of their role within a larger community and the value of that role

Good teachers may also measure their success by the development of relationships both among students and between themselves and the students, or by taking stock of the type of environment that they’ve helped to create within the classroom. They may look for growth in the responses to some of these questions:

  • Are students inspired?
  • Are students respectful of one another and of the teacher?
  • How do students handle conflict?
  • How do students feel about the teacher as a person?

3. Building a Community of Democracy and Respect in the Classroom

Most classrooms aren’t devoid of rules or authority figures, but the best teachers understand that those things can exist within an environment of collaboration that cultivates a sense that the classroom community is a mini-democracy where every voice is heard when making certain decisions.

Involving students in their education

Classrooms are a place for taking tests, but they are also a place for learning how to peacefully coexist in society and recognize one’s own responsibility to the common good. After all, a classroom is essentially a microcosm of a greater society, and good teachers make efforts to impart knowledge that will help students succeed outside of school.

If students are involved in their education, establishing the way their classrooms are run, and deciding how their days are structured, they will naturally be more invested in their learning. One study showed that teachers can have a “more positive influence on student achievement when they allow students to have a voice in classroom decisions.”

Fostering respect

Good teachers continually challenge themselves to find new ways to incorporate this sense of democracy into the classroom, first by being good role models themselves. Other ways a teacher can encourage respectful and democratic interactions include:

  • Facilitating a group discussion to try to move toward a consensus and see the opposing side’s point of view before voting on a classroom decision
  • Working to move students toward productive action when they step forward to complain about how something is done
  • Empowering the students by encouraging student-led learning and giving them a say in how a lesson is carried out

Fostering an environment of respect within the classroom is another goal that quality teachers will seek to achieve. By learning within a respectful classroom, where everyone is committed to getting along with each other and treating each other with empathy and kindness, students will benefit in ways that go far beyond their success in academic subjects.

4. Participating in a Community of Teachers Who Inspire Them to Keep Learning, Shifting, and Improving

Great teachers don’t achieve that high threshold without a supportive group of more experienced peers. They learn more quickly by pairing their own experiences with stories from other teachers, talking through the issues they may be having with challenging students, and learning about new pedagogical theories and practices from others dedicated to a lifetime of ongoing improvement.

Relying on networks

Starting with a strong graduate program means you will always have a strong alumni network to draw from, along with colleagues, online teacher networks, teacher conferences, and continuing education classes and workshops.

Collaborating with others

Connecting with other teachers and administrators within a teacher’s own school is also essential for a teacher’s success. Connections between teaching colleagues can foster support and enrichment that help a teacher with his or her own students and curriculum, while maintaining open communication with administrators helps to ensure teachers are supported in the necessary ways.

5. Fully committing to their profession and their classrooms.

Being a good teacher requires one to dedicate a significant amount of time to his or her students and profession. While a teacher’s workday at school may simply be from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., it takes much more than those hours to be able to achieve greatness as an educator. Good teachers take the time to:

  • Prepare for class and review student work
  • Get to know students and their parents
  • Work individually with students outside of the classroom when needed
  • Maintain steady involvement in school committees or extracurricular activities

All of these things require time beyond classroom hours—but that commitment is an important quality of a good teacher. What’s more, great teachers are passionate about their jobs and are willing to go above and beyond to ensure they’re able to provide the best possible environment and education for their students.

As a teacher, achieving the mantle of “great” requires a passion for the profession beyond anything tied to financial reward or recognition. After all, teaching is tough work that requires plenty of diligence, long hours, and ongoing education. Anyone who is motivated by the idea that teachers have real and unique positioning in the classroom to improve students’ lives has the potential to be great.

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