Sunday, September 7, 2014

7 Attributes of Great Teachers

What characteristics does it take to become a teacher? Or, even better, what attributes describe great teachers? When you think of great teachers you know or have had, what stands out to you about them?

Thanks to my Twitterfriend, @johnccarver for sharing this gem.

I have been a professional educator for 17 years now, and while I have come to the point where I can say that I'm a good teacher, I'm still learning, still striving to get better. But here are the seven things I know for sure all great teachers have in common.

1. Great Teachers love kids.

If you don't love kids, don't become a teacher. If you are already a teacher and you don't love kids...please kindly remove yourself from the profession.


But loving kids--crucial as that is!--is not enough.

2. Great Teachers really know how to teach.

Teachers have to know how to help their students learn. If you are busy teaching, but the students aren't actually learning anything...are you really teaching? This might sound obvious, but think about the teachers you've had: some of them were better than others, weren't they? Those were the ones that really knew how to teach.

What does this look like? Well, great teachers are familiar with a wide range of instructional methods, and just like a craftsman with the right tools in his toolbox, a great teacher can change tools when the job calls for it. Direct instruction (like lectures or demonstrations) may be the right tool some of the time, but indirect instruction (like inquiry-based or problem-based learning) may also be the right tool some of the time. Collaborative learning is the right tool at some times, while individual learning is right at others. Great teachers are able to differentiate based on the needs of their students, so an understanding of developmental psychology (and how to apply it in a classroom setting!) is also critical. And let's not forget about classroom management. Great teachers have the right balance of structure and freedom to interact well with their students, and help their students to learn.

Now that I've said that, however, we need to talk about not just how we teach, but also what we teach...

3. Great Teachers are masters of their content.

One of the most daunting things to deal with is the continuing explosion of information. How can you know "everything" about the subjects you teach? Short answer: you can't.

Great teachers have a firm grasp of the essential content and skills they will need to teach to their students, and they know where to turn for more information as needed. They know their stuff, but they are always ready to deepen their understanding.

Which means, by the way...

4. Great Teachers are continuously learning.

Perhaps you've had one of those teachers who had a first year of teaching...and then just hit the repeat button and continued to do the very same thing for the next 10 (or 20, or 30...) years. Don't be that teacher!

Great teachers are always looking for opportunities to learn something new. New content, new techniques, new technologies, new strategies, new books to bring into their classroom, new activities to engage students.

Please note that while I used the word "new" seven times in the previous paragraph, I'm NOT encouraging you to chuck out everything "old." Carry on, dear reader...

5. Great Teachers understand the history of education.

The thing about this profession is that there are all sorts of fads that have continued to crop up throughout the centuries. I've written before about how the Common Core, in some ways, reminds me of school in the 1800's. This is just one example, of course.

Great teachers understand enough of what has been true in education in the past to remember and recognize things that have stood the test of time. Being able to make wise judgments about the value of a "radical new idea" might mean recognizing it for what it is: an old, old idea in a new wrapper.

Of course, we can't live in the past. We live in the present, and we are preparing our students for a life in the future that we can't even fully comprehend yet, so...

6. Great Teachers innovate.

This might seem to fly in the face of what was just said about valuing the history of education, but recognize the difference between understanding what has been done before and living in the past and critically evaluating the current landscape of education and discerning when it's time to make a break with tradition. (How many things in education are "because we've 'always' done it that way...?")

Recognizing that society today is different than it was 10 (or 20, or 50, or 100) years ago means that great teachers will contextualize their practices for the students they are serving today. This may mean evaluating their current practices, the current school structures, the current climate in their school, and then asking "What if...?" questions.

Of course, this doesn't happen in a vacuum. Teachers almost always serve as part of a team, which means...

7. Great Teachers collaborate.

There may have been a day when teaching meant going into your classroom, closing the door, and controlling your own little universe with your students. That day is largely behind us. With the bevy of educational specialists available today (special education teachers, paraprofessionals, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, instructional coaches, instructional technologists, and the like), classroom teachers have more opportunities to tap into the wisdom and expertise of other professionals than ever before.

Beyond their classroom, great teachers look for opportunities to connect with other educators, both throughout their building and even across the globe. Locally, there may be opportunities to join a professional learning community (PLC) or discussion group. Regionally, the edcamp "unconference" movement has connected hundreds of educators across geographic regions and given a venue for sharing and collaboration. Looking to go global? There are literally hundreds of thousands of passionate educators connecting via social media every day to ask questions, solicit feedback, share resources, and provide support. Are you part of that conversation?


That's my list. What have I forgotten? What would you change? What would you add?

Can all teachers be "Great Teachers?" Perhaps not...but I think all of us can keep getting better. Let's keep the conversation going.


  1. Great read, Dave. A couple of times as I read I thought something like, "Yes, I agree, but don't forget about..." and a moment later you were covering that aspect in a fresh and thoughtful way.

    I think it is a fairly complete list because it conveys the need for teachers to be both teachers and learners. Now, perhaps more than ever, credibility in the classroom and staffroom comes from being a learner as much as from being a teacher. Separating the two is really an abstract exercise. Modelling learning can be very instructive, and all teachers know that teaching is one of the best ways to learn. Your list captures this paradox well by balancing knowledge, craft, and history with collaboration, learning, and innovation.

    Thank you for taking the time to succinctly and thoughtfully define some of the key elements of being a quality, professional teacher. Pre-service teachers reading this list should have plenty to consider as they imagine how they may be spending their days in and out of school.

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback, my friend! Glad this piece resonated with you. Hope you're having a good year thus far.