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What are the qualities of great teachers?

What are the qualities of a great teacher?
December 18, 2014
Drew Sarmiere

I’ve seen this question posited many times, and there seems to be some measure of debate, or at least confusion, about the answer. I believe the answer is very straightforward, however. Identifying those individuals that posses the necessary qualities is not necessarily so straightforward, but identifying the characteristics, in my opinion, is. In no particular order:

Characteristic number one – subject knowledge. This is a no-brainer, no pun intended. For one to be a great teacher, one must have a strong grasp of the material that is to be taught. Fortunately, identifying individuals that meet this criterion is relatively easy: simply create a written test that assesses one’s knowledge in a given subject area and have teachers take this test. It’s not very difficult to write an appropriate assessment. Some people may argue that writing an appropriate assessment is difficult. I strongly disagree. It is not. There will never be a perfect test, but there can easily be an effective one. At Peak, we have a subject-based assessment for virtually every content area we cover, and we require any potential new teacher to take the appropriate tests and pass with 90%+ correct. This is has proven to be a very effective tool.

Characteristic number two – have the ability to explain ideas and information in an organized and straightforward manner. Also a no-brainer, you can have all of the knowledge in the world but won’t be much of a teacher if you can’t effectively share that knowledge. Frankly, finding individuals that satisfactorily meet this criterion is quite easy; there is no shortage of people with a satisfactory level of this ability. Although difficult to measure the quality of this characteristic in individuals, it is not hard to determine if someone generally has an acceptable level of this skill or not. We require our teaching candidates to provide a teaching demonstration. Typically, we do not find that this is much of a limiting factor.

Characteristic number three – engaging personality. Boring people make boring teachers. If students are not engaged, learning is diminished. Also difficult to actually measure, it is not very difficult to determine if someone has a relatively engaging personality or not. Assessing this criterion can be easily determined by interacting with an individual, as well as by observing teaching demonstrations. In my opinion, an engaging personality, one that will allow the development of a good rapport between student and teacher and keep the student’s interest while working with the teacher, is so important that we will turn away candidates that meet all of the other criteria of a great teacher if they do not sufficiently meet this one.

Characteristic number four – a sincere drive/desire to see the learner succeed, i.e. passion for teaching. I have seen teachers that are knowledgeable, articulate, and fun/friendly, that do not also meet this criterion. These people can be good teachers, but they will never be great teachers. Students that are inherently intelligent, in other words that learn new things easily and do not struggle, typically do fine with these types of teachers. Students that do not pick things up quickly and need additional help/tools/strategies will not do well with a teacher lacking this criterion. These are the teachers that “go the extra mile.” Fortunately, for whatever reason, the teaching profession tends to attract people with this quality.

An individual that possesses some, but not all, of the above qualities can potentially be a good teacher, but he or she will never be a great teacher. We should aspire to fill our classrooms with greater teachers, but we should also be willing to accept that not every teacher can be great, some can only be good, and that is ok. Bad teachers are unacceptable. We have to draw the line somewhere. Any person that does not possess characteristics one and two cannot be a good teacher and should never be hired to teach. At the very least, we need to make changes that will prevent the hiring of “teachers” that do not meet these two criteria. Luckily, these are the two easiest criteria to measure.

Author’s Note – I apologize for the oversimplification of the topics I address in my blog. This is a result of not having the ability to devote the time necessary to delve deeply into a topic nor explain my ideas as thoroughly as I’d like. I hope, however, that the information provided is found useful for those that have read it.