What makes a good teacher?

You’ve probably noticed recent news headlines about a trend toward parents demanding that schools provide an education which parents think is appropriate for their children. The problem, of course, is that parents don’t agree what that “appropriate” definition is. Some parents want their children exposed to a wide variety of ideas and values, making sure that the children develop skills in thinking and problem solving. Other parents want their children taught traditional educational subjects, making sure that their children are not exposed to topics that may be unsettling.

None of these people understand that the school curriculum is not the point. Schools can determine what information that students will be exposed to, and how children will demonstrate their knowledge, but in the long run that makes no difference. What does make a difference on what children learn in school? The teacher.

I went looking for some descriptions of what makes a good teacher. Predictably, there are plenty of sources which talk about patience, empathy, communication skills, adaptability, and all those important soft skills. While these are excellent characteristics of good people, these lists do not reflect the very specific skills that teachers need.  One of the best lists I found is from a study, “Twelve Characteristics of an Effective Teacher,” published in Educational Horizons, a journal of professional education. That list included valuable skills such as a sense of humor, ability to admit mistakes, being fair, creative, and holding high expectations. Unlike the first group of characteristics which simply define good people, the list in this article actually reflects what good teachers are like.

After almost 50 years of teaching, I know that there’s something more that is of primary importance for good teachers. One source, an international business that provides help for schools providing staff training, pupil management, and technical resources, has a list, with these as the two top factors.

  1. Knowledge of the subject matter – you have to know the subject, and more importantly, you have to think it’s the most fascinating subject there is. That sort of enthusiasm will help captivate students and encourage them to study the material. It also means that the teacher knows how important the subject is, and how it fits into one’s life.
  2. Classroom skills – this includes being able to explain the material, develop fair assessment tools (both tests and written work), deal with behavioral issues, get students to discuss the material in a positive way, and getting all students engaged in the class. These are the skills that novice teachers rarely have, and that make teaching so hard at the beginning.

Parents are clueless about what makes a good teacher because they haven’t taught in a classroom setting. Being a student does not help you understand anything about how to teach. Which of course begs the question – “what about all the education professors at the college and university level who have never taught?” They think they know what should happen in a classroom because they’ve read all the research, and it’s that sort of approach that creates the useless lists of teacher skills such as patience, empathy, adaptability etc. The fact that a teacher needs to know the subject never occurs to them, because they don’t know their subject either.

So, we have parents who are demanding better education for their children, and educators who don’t know how to provide that better education because they haven’t been well trained. The result is that teachers are leaving the classroom in droves. It’s into this vacuum that parents are stepping because they see that their children aren’t being well served by schools. Unfortunately, parents tend to see only their children, and only their view of the world. School serves all children together, and it’s in that group environment that we learn to understand other viewpoints and get along with each other.

What can you do to make sure that your child gets the best education? Support the teachers! Ask them what needs to happen, what needs to change, and, most importantly, make sure that the teachers know what they’re doing in the classroom, and are paid at a level that honors the key role they play in building and sustaining our civil society. You want your child in the hands of a well-trained and competent teacher? That won’t happen unless the person is well compensated for their work.