What Makes a Great Teacher?

If you’re a teacher, you have probably wondered from time to time what makes one teacher better or more effective than another.  I would never presume to know the “right” answer to this.  Besides, there are plenty of articles and textbooks devoted to the best ways to be an effective teacher.  I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach.

I started this site as a way to help teachers to help kids.  Like many of the people who might visit this little website about education, I attended public school long before differentiated instruction was a popular buzzword.  There are some things about differentiation that I think are great, and there are some things that I don’t entirely agree with, but that is fodder for another post.  Today, I wanted to write a bit about what I learned from my favorite teachers (I’ve changed their names to protect their privacy).Great Teacher

Make Me Smile

When I was in second grade, I had a wonderful teacher named Mrs. Shultz.  The year was 1976 and America was celebrating its bicentennial.  My memories of that school year include learning several patriotic songs that we sang for a school program, and Mrs. Shultz smiling at me every day when she had us stand to say the Pledge of Allegiance.  I always smiled back.  I couldn’t stop myself.  I’m sure we learned a lot of things that year, but what I remember is her kindness toward me.  I saw Mrs. Shultz many years later when I was student teaching in that same district.  I didn’t recognize her at first.  When she smiled though, I had no doubt about who she was.  I hurried over and introduced myself.  I think she was doing her best to pretend that she remembered me, but I wasn’t offended.  She seemed honestly surprised when I told her that she was one of my favorite teachers.  Mrs. Shultz taught me how important a smile can be to a child.  Thanks Mrs. Shultz.

Science Experiments for Kids

When I was in fourth grade, I was in the “science” room.  My teacher that year, Mr. Kutcher, loved science.  There were all kinds of interesting science related artifacts scattered around the room.  Mr. K (that’s what we all called him) brought in the neatest stuff to show us.  One time he even brought in some Edison cylinder phonograph recordings for us to examine.  Everyone was amazed as we listened to our teacher tell us the story of how the sounds were created.  He played them for us over and over again until we had gotten our fill.  Later that year, he showed us how to make pinhole cameras out of Quaker Oats containers.  I can still remember the day we went outside, removed the rubber bands and paper shutters, and took our very own photos of the school.  The sun was shining brightly and there was a stiff breeze blowing.  We had to hold the cameras firmly in place as they made their painfully slow exposures.  Afterward, our entire class went inside and took turns developing our photographs in a makeshift darkroom (the supply closet).  Mr. Kutcher taught me that hands on learning can be fun and still teach plenty of relevant content.  Thanks Mr. K.

Show Compassion for Others

Fifth grade was a tough year for me.  My Dad discovered that he had cancer right around the New Year.  Things got bad in a hurry, and he died in March.   I turned 11 the very next day.  Even though my Dad had worked two jobs as I was growing up, some of my best memories are of the times we had together.  I took the loss pretty hard.  My teacher that year was Mrs. Conway.  I remember turning around in the funeral home and finding her standing there, along with the other fifth grade teachers.  I also remember how kind and understanding she was as I returned to class.  It was a different time, and I was the only kid who didn’t have a Dad around anymore.  Mrs. Conway helped me to get back into the game and she taught me how important compassion can be any time you are dealing with other people.  Thanks Mrs. Conway.

Learn to Listen to Others

Middle school and high school were not my favorite times.  Some people long to go back and relive those “glory days”, but once was enough for me.  Even so, there was at least one teacher during that time who still stands out in my memory as being exceptional.  Mr. Ester was a social studies teacher in my high school.  I had reluctantly signed up for a World Religions class that he was teaching when I was in tenth grade.  It turned out that he was also a minister in his church.  He made a point of clarifying that he was not endorsing any specific religion as he taught the class though.  What makes Mr. Ester stand out in my mind is the fact that he listened.  Man, did he listen!  About once every two weeks or so, he would let the class turn into a discussion of whatever was on our minds.  The topics ranged from religion to the threat of nuclear weapons.  He never judged us, and he seemed to really enjoy the discussions.  Mr. Ester taught me how valuable it can be to connect with your students and to leave the book behind.  We learned a lot about ourselves and each other in that class.  Looking back, it reminds me a lot of The Breakfast Club with a teacher in the room.  Thanks Mr. Ester.

Develop Personal Connections

Every day that we stand in front of a class full of students, we need to remember what those students really are.  A room full of people.  There is an immense amount of pressure from above, that can drive teachers to focus solely on scores, numbers, progress, and performance.   Meeting the demands of standardized tests sometimes threatens to steal the soul out of teaching.  I hope that never happens.   People will continue searching for the best techniques to help students to achieve mastery of every required topic.  Progress is good, but stay focused.  When you have a connection with your students, I think you will find that getting them to learn and understand your lessons will be much easier.

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