As a new school year kicks into full swing everyone seems to be focused on teaching and education. So, what makes a good teacher, and can these qualities be measured?


These days everyone seems to be talking about teacher quality; how to determine it, how to improve it, or how to quantify it.   None of these questions can be answered until we know, what makes a good teacher.   Is the best teacher the one with the most prestigious education or the most degrees on his wall?  The one with the smallest class who can provide the most individual attention?  Does she have the most years of teaching experience, or spend the most time planning elaborate lessons?  What makes a great teacher?   If we do not know, then how can we go about measuring it to determine teacher quality?

If I asked you to think of the best teacher you had, who would come to mind?  What qualities did that person possess?  I bet it is likely that all of us would describe our favorite teacher very differently.   Since we all learn in a unique way, it is unlikely that any group of people could come to a consensus on one style or set of characteristics of an excellent teacher.  Educator and philosopher Parker Palmer explains it this way:

Good teaching isn’t about technique. I’ve asked students around the country to describe their good teachers to me. Some of them describe people who lecture all the time, some of them describe people who do little other than facilitate group process, and others describe everything in between. But all of them describe people who have some sort of connective capacity, who connect themselves to their students, their students to each other, and everyone to the subject being studied. (1999, p. 27)

Have you ever listened to someone who is obviously extremely intelligent, but just cannot communicate what they know to others?  It is clear that one can be both very bright and very bad at teaching.  So, maybe it’s time that we admit that teaching is not just about being knowledgeable.  Although no one will argue that knowledge of the content area is important, the fact is that kids (and all of us) want to learn from someone who is engaging.

Professor Bob Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia put it this way, “The things we think typically matter to make an effective teacher — how many years experience, how many degrees you have, whether you have a degree in this or a degree in that — don’t seem to matter much at all.”  So, what does matter?  According to Pianta, it is how a teacher interacts with kids, delivers instruction, and engages them in the learning process.  He further explains that a good teacher is a good social worker, manager and instructor.  I think that this is a perfect description of what an effective teacher must strive for, and also an explanation for why teachers are so tired at the end of the day.  After all, we are doing three jobs!

Just like a good social worker, a good teacher forms relationships with kids and their families.  This means learning to reach out to and connect with all types of people, even those who do not really seem all that interested in forming a relationship with you.  Great teachers find a way to engage students in what they are learning, and how do they do that?  They get to know their students.  They know what each student is interested in, their goals and their families, and they use this information to find a way to hook them into the curriculum they are teaching.  Excellent teachers use these relationships to teach values like kindness, integrity, and the rewards of hard work to students who may not receive this type of guidance anywhere else.  Yes, an excellent teacher forms positive teacher-student relationships with each of their 90+ students and offers them a sense of emotional support. Because in order to learn, you have to feel safe enough to ask questions and make mistakes and this can only happen in an environment of trust.

Secondly, a good teacher must be the CEO of their classroom.  They must possess the qualities of an excellent manager.  A great teacher knows how present an assignment so that kids are excited and understand what they need to do.  They also know how to make a C+ feel like an achievement and an A+ feel like the Nobel Peace Prize.  An excellent teacher must also have great time management and planning skills.  How else could they get 28 first graders to build a model of the solar system in one hour without total chaos ensuing?  If you have ever tried to do an arts and crafts project with even a few small children, you know how difficult this task really is.  This brings us to the next thing a great teacher manages well, student behavior.  An excellent teacher is an excellent communicator and practices successful classroom management, because we all know if the class is going crazy, talking, and passing notes, then no learning is taking place.

Lastly, a good teacher has to be a good instructor.  They should know well the subject they are teaching.  Not just well enough to regurgitate it, but well enough to find ways to make it interesting and understandable to everyone, and well enough to build a child’s thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.  An excellent teacher does not just go through bulleted points on the curriculum map; he or she teaches children how to learn so that they are able and motivated to make their own discoveries.   Good teachers plan and then make a new plan until it works, because we all know that what works in our head does not necessarily work as well with 30 little people involved.  The best teachers serve as leaders in setting big goals and high expectations for their students, so that they are constantly growing.

As one can see, being an excellent teacher is quite a task.  In fact many would argue it is a calling rather than just a job.   As such, teaching excellence is something to constantly work towards, and equally hard to quantify, although the folks in this article have some interesting ideas: I am excited to hear your thoughts about what makes a good teacher and whether, or how these qualities can be measured.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC

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