One of my biggest goals is to become a teacher. In fact, it’s part of my personal mission statement: “My mission is to experience life through…teaching others.” I don’t want to be a run-of-the-mill boring teacher, though. Not like the “substitute teachers” of my school days. But what makes a good teacher?
We all know good teachers when we see them, and bad teachers too. I thought back over the teachers I’d loved and why I loved them. There were only a few, but they all had the following qualities in common.
1. Confidence. Belief in ourselves despite setbacks. Teachers encounter situations all the time that could be considered setbacks. Kids can be cruel, to each other and to teachers. They can have attitudes, especially teenagers. I’ve had teachers to were obviously nervous when they taught. Others were shy and only half committed to their subject. But the best teachers laughed off their mistakes: chalk breaking, books dropped, TVs not working. Where some teachers were flustered, the good teachers shrugged and went on about the lesson, sometimes even joking about the mess up. These teachers knew they were human and knew mistakes happen. They didn’t take things personally and let problems get them upset.
2. Patience. Some of my best teachers could have helped students through a mental breakdown. Not that they had to, but that they were so patient, they could have gone the distance. Many a time I, or classmate, would just not be “getting” a particular concept. My best teachers were those who were willing to keep explaining, knowing that eventually it would make sense. They were willing to wait until a distraction calmed students down, or abandon a lesson entirely if it was clear material needed to be revisited. The best teachers just stuck with it, willing to do what it took, no matter how long it took.
3. True compassion for their students. I’m sure we’ve all encountered a bad teacher who didn’t care what our excuse was. Certainly, some excuses weren’t valid, but many were. The best teachers cared about their students as individuals and wanted to help them. They had a sixth sense when a student needed extra attention and gave it gladly. They didn’t expect students to leave thoughts of the outside world at the door to the classroom. They took the time to discuss subjects outside their teaching, knowing that sometimes lessons can still be taught without following the textbook. Good teachers were willing to speak up for us to other teachers, if need be. They cared about us beyond the walls of their classroom.
4. Understanding. Good teachers had understanding – not only the sixth sense mentioned above, but true understanding of how to teach. They didn’t have a rigid technique that they insisted on using even if it didn’t help us learn. They were flexible in their teaching style, adapting daily if need be. They understood the little things that affected our ability to learn; the weather, the temperature in the classroom, the time of day. They had an understanding of human nature and the maturity (or lack thereof) of teenagers. Good teachers knew that we hated to be called “young” and therefore pre-judged. They treated us as real people, not just “students.”
5. The ability to look at life in a different way and to explain a topic in a different way. There are many different learning styles. Not everyone gets a subject as taught by every teacher. I’ve taken subjects (chemistry for instance) many times, at many different levels, by many different teachers. I took College Organic Chemistry three times from three different teachers. I can tell you from experience that it was more the skill of the third teacher than the third time taking the class that allowed me to pass. Bad teachers only look a subject matter one way. They teach based on how they learn. This works for some people, but fails for others. The good teachers are ones that are able to teach to different learning styles. If students don’t understand a subject, they teach it a different way. Instead of looking at abstract formulas, they explain with images what the formulas represent. This requires a through understand of their subject, as well as the ability to consider that subject in different ways, which not all teachers are able to do.
6. Dedication to excellence. Good teachers want the best from their students and themselves. They don’t settle for poor grades, knowing it reflects upon their ability to teach just as much upon a student’s ability to excel. The best teachers encourage the sharing of ideas and offer incentives (like not having to do homework for a day) to get students to think outside the box. They don’t tolerate students’ badmouthing other teachers, doing their best to point out that other teachers are human too. They encourage students to be good people, not just good memorizers of text. They want students to learn and be able to apply what they learned, not just be able to pass tests.
7. Unwavering support. The best teachers know that everyone is able to do well if they have the right teacher. They don’t accept that a student is a lost cause. They encourage if you are frustrated and provide true belief that you can get the material. They stand up for individuals against other students, not allowing for in class taunting. Sometimes, they even extend this outside the classroom, although taunts in the hallways are very hard for teachers to combat. The best teachers are there if you need extra help and even encourage it.
8. Willingness to help student achieve. The best teachers are those that don’t stop teaching when the bell rings. They hold extra sessions for SAT prep, they reach out to students after class. They know that some need extra attention or assistance, and they don’t act like it’s not their job. They take that job seriously and know they aren’t just employed to get students to be able to do higher math, but do well in life. They realize that achievement isn’t just a good grade on a test, but a feeling of accomplishment with mastering a subject; they are willing to work with a student for that feeling.
9. Pride in student’s accomplishments. The best teachers let you know they are glad you got a good grade or made the honor’s society. They smile and tell you that you did a good job. They tell other teachers about how you did as well. Outside you may feel embarrassed, but inside you are glowing. The best teachers don’t single out the best students either. They celebrate the accomplishments of everyone, knowing that everyone is capable to doing well. They are upbeat and positive, focusing on how a student did well, not how well they taught. They may know that it was the strength of their teaching that helped a student to achieve, but they act as if the student is completely responsible.
10. Passion for life. The best teachers aren’t just interested in their subject, they are passionate about it. They are also passionate about many other things. They praise good weather and smile when they take a few minutes to discuss last night’s episode of a popular TV show. They have an energy that almost makes them glow and that you want to emulate as much as possible. They approach tasks with a sense of challenge rather than routine. They take the universe’s curve balls and turn them into fun (if possible). They are human, certainly, but they make you feel that there is always a reason to keep going. Things will get better no matter how much they appear to suck at that moment.
As may be clear from the above, the best teacher I ever had was a math teacher. She was all the more exceptional because math is the one subject I hate the most. She told us to call her “Aunt Jackie,” but I had way too much respect to call her anything but “Mrs. Lamp.” She is now a principal of a different High School than she taught at when I was her student, and I suspect she is as good a principal as she was a math teacher