Ingredients to Make a Good Teacher

Across the country, universities and research institutions are teaming up to determine how to make teacher preparation programs more rigorous and instructional in order to produce more prepared teachers. They say between one third and half of new teachers quit the profession all together within the first five years of entering the profession. And, it is no doubt that this high attrition rate is impacting our students. In my school, there are approximately 60 new hires. In my department alone, we have three teachers (including myself) who have not made it to that five year mark. Being fresh out of teaching school and working with so many other new teachers, and so many successful veterans, I have been trying to put together a checklist of what I observe to make a good teacher. Here is what I have come up with so far:

1. A good teacher has the ability to reflect upon his/her teaching practices to make better: When I look back at my plan book from my first semesters of teaching, I always gasp at the atrocity of lessons that I forced my kids to go through (if anyone of you are reading this, I sincerely apologize). Any teacher knows that you can spend oodles of time, putting together the perfect lesson, and one small transition or comment that you didn’t anticipate could ruin the entire flow. Our lessons are not always going to be perfect. But, what is important is the ability to reflect and say, “Ok, this didn’t work last time so I will tweak it differently next time”. Some teachers take mental notes, others write them on the lesson plans. I will say–this is sometimes a difficult skill, because you are criticizing yourself and have to admit that maybe you aren’t as smart or as flawless as you thought you were. You have to take a step back and observe your performance through an unbiased set of eyes. But, a good teacher is someone who is always wanting to improve, innovate, and get better.

2. A good teacher acknowledges the individual learner: I think back to my favorite teachers in high school. The ones I really worked for and bonded with were the teacher who paid attention to the small details of my life: Hey Britany, I really liked that poster you hung in the hall. How is your sister doing? What did you think of Catching Fire? How did your musical audition go? It is amazing what you can get out of a kid when you go out of your way to make a personal connection. Likewise, a good teacher acknowledges that not every student is the same, so there can not always be ‘fair’ practices, but that we have to do what’s best for the individual student. I have some kids who will never go onto college and will never care how to write a literary analysis paper, so perhaps I modify the assignment to fit their needs.

3. A good teacher understands boundaries: There is a difference between being friends and being buddies with your students. A good teacher understands that boundary. We are not here to text you, to hang out with you, to post pictures with you on social media. But, we are here to guide you, to help you make informed decisions, to make sure you are safe. Most people will say that they respect the stricter teachers rather than the teachers who tried to be friends with them. I will say at 23 years old, this can definitely be a fine line. So, I dress like an Amish person and am very careful about the types of stories I share about my personal life (they usually revolve around our pets, because who doesn’t want to hear about the cute little kitties?)

4. A good teacher takes his/her job seriously: A good teacher is someone who understands the job does not end at 3:15 when the bell rings. This means taking classes, grading papers, putting together lesson plans, etc. outside of school hours. A good teacher understands the importance of organization and preparation. It’s about having enough maturity to know you can’t talk about other colleagues with students. It’s about checking your personal life at the door and pretending everything is roses and butterflies because that is what is best for the kids. And, a good teacher understands that the job title extends outside the doors. Because I know I am a role model for so many kids, I understand it is my responsibility to model good decisions for my students and the kids I coach. If I expect them to not text me, then I don’t text them. If I expect them to be on time, then I am also on time. If I expect them to drive the speed limit to get to practice safely, then I have to drive the speed limit.

5….and, a good teacher doesn’t take him/herself THAT seriously: High school especially is a difficult time because kids are trying to find themselves (although most of them go through this stage again in college and again when they graduate anyways). Insecurity drives so many of their behaviors and decisions. Insecurity is how drama starts, it is why kids act like class clowns, it is why they dress in awkward heels all the time. So, in a good teacher’s classroom, the teacher takes the brunt of the insecurities and the jokes and criticisms in order to face them away from the students (of course, there is a boundary to this as well). One of the best teachers I know stood in front of her class last year and pointed out her “bulging biceps”. She is confident with herself, so the kids make fun of her for saying that instead of making fun of each other. It works like magic and creates a very inviting classroom environment. And, a good teacher also knows that he/she will make mistakes. It happens. We are not all grammar-i-ticians or sci-fi textbooks. The worst is when you have a teacher who lies to you to cover up for not knowing something. It breaks trust. I know I am guilty of that for sure.

I was fortunate enough to have pristine teacher education training that helped me start to develop some of these good teacher habits, although I am nowhere near mastering any of them (except for the dressing like an Amish person–I am pretty good at that).

The problem with the direction our educational system is going is that we are focusing on test scores instead of the interpersonal relationships built by teachers. My list of what makes a good teacher has nothing to do with knowing how to structure the best ACT prep or output the most 5’s and 6’s on AP essays. Truly, you can teach content all you want, but until you break the barrier and gain your students’ respect, they won’t learn.

So, in digesting what makes a good teacher, I have come to the conclusion that it really requires a special kind of personality. When I think about all of the pre-service teachers and educators I have met in my life, there are just some kind of personalities that are not cut out for teaching.

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