Should the qualities of a good teacher be defined solely by student achievement?
Or should they encompass traits more difficult to measure — such as the capacity to connect emotionally with children?
Among the sea of advice, tips, and quotes on teaching, the best solution is to turn to the research.
We pored through hundreds of pages of scholarship, studies, and firsthand accounts about what defines great teaching.
We discovered 6 key behaviours that make a great teacher — and defined 25 specific, actionable ways to apply those behaviours in the classroom. Start testing them with your students to stimulate a more exciting, dynamic, and engaging experience in your coming lessons!
1. A good teacher instills confidence
In the book 50 Ways to Improve Student Behavior, middle school teacher Todd Whitaker highlights low student confidence as one of the most persistent obstacles to the success of any teacher. He breaks down a worrying trend:
- Many students do not believe that their teachers actually believe in them
- Many students do not believe that their parents actually believe in them
- Many students do not believe that any adult actually believes in them
- Many students, therefore, do not believe in themselves
- Students who do not believe in themselves tend to have more behavioral and academic problems
If the final point’s conclusion is obvious, the inverse should be just as clear: If students who don’t believe in themselves have issues in the classroom, those who do believe in themselves will be better-equipped to succeed academically.
This insight is backed by a 2011 study suggesting student confidence is positively correlated with academic performance and behavioral improvement.
Teacher skills to build student confidence
- Make learning goal-oriented — If you set defined goals with your students — at the beginning of the school year or even of each lesson — the whole class will have a better understanding of its individual and collective accomplishments. To make learning more goal-oriented, make decisive statements about the day’s learning goals. For example, start a lesson with a statement such as “today you will learn the first step of multiplication,” and finish the class by saying, “Congratulations! Now you’re ready to show your parents you’re learning how to multiply!” Cultivating this perspective helps students take confidence from their own progress, boosting learning outcomes and motivation.
- Instill a growth mindset — According to psychologist Carol Dweck, a fixed mindset conceives of student skills as rigid and inflexible. In contrast, a growth mindset views student learning as fluid and changing, and aims to develop children’s skills and talents through effort and persistence. The growth mindset, Dweck notes, helps students become more receptive to lessons and feedback. While the details of the pedagogy can be subtle, a few common ways to instill a growth mindset include actions as simple as encouraging students to expand their answers more consistently or using success folders.
- Reassure your students verbally — As elementary teacher Todd Whittaker argues, if you want a student to believe in himself, “then actually tell him that you believe in him, that you will not give up on him, that you understand his struggles, and that you are there for him. Far too many teachers forget to do this — to tell and show their students they actually believe in them.” Among the many research-driven discussions of pedagogy and teaching strategies, it can be easy to forget the power of simply reassuring and encouraging your students verbally to instill confidence in their abilities.
- Harness the power of EdTech — Most teachers agree educational technology is a useful teaching tool: In a study conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, almost 80% of K-8 classroom teachers surveyed said that digital games have “improved student mastery of curricular content”. Using educational technology in the classroom makes it easier to teach students of all learning backgrounds, helping teachers bring even the most timid of students out of their shells. Curriculum-aligned math games, such as Prodigy, boost student confidence and learning outcomes. As you’ve likely found, students may find math unapproachable when it’s explained on the chalkboard. Grounding math in a fun, video-game environment that appeals to students can produce remarkable changes in learning outcomes, and even test scores.
2. A good teacher manages the classroom effectively
A teacher can be knowledgeable, prepared — and even a great communicator — but still fail simply because of an inability to deal with misbehavior in the classroom.
Classroom management encompasses all the strategies a teacher deploys to organize and arrange students, learning materials, space, and use of classroom time to maximize the efficiency of teaching and learning.
This helps students enjoy an organized, structured environment with an emphasis on a positive educational atmosphere that is conducive to learning.
Teacher skills for effective classroom management
- Define Classroom Rules — In his book Classroom Management That Works, researcher Robert Marzano argues effective teachers “have a minimum number of classroom rules, which tend to focus on expectations of how to act toward one another, maintain a safe environment, and participate in learning.” These teachers offer clear explanations of the rules, model the rules, rehearse the expectations with students, and offer the classroom “opportunities to be successful in meeting the expectations.” While there is no magic number of rules that govern a classroom, it’s clear the establishment of fair, reasonable, enforceable, and consistently applied rules will have a deep impact on behavior in the classroom.
- Establish a routine — In a study to assess the characteristics of effective teachers, researchers found that instructors who “use classroom routines as a means of enforcing high standards for classroom behavior” enjoy greater success. To cultivate a positive and orderly learning environment, establish a routine and system wherever necessary for your daily tasks and requirements — from the general to the specific. For example, if a student becomes stuck on an assignment, outline clear, teacher-approved guidelines for seeking help in a timely way (e.g., asking peers for assistance and — if still unsolved — seeking the teacher’s help).
- Consider a flexible seating arrangement — Research has shown that physically adjusting the classroom environment can foster greater collaboration, communication, and interaction between students and teachers alike. Flexible seating can facilitate teacher-child interaction on a level beyond what’s commonly seen in traditional, teacher-fronted settings. Moreover, the novelty and stimulation students enjoy through an interactive and changing classroom setting positively impacts behavior, according to Sheryl Feinstein’s book From the Brain to the Classroom. Flexible seating classrooms can solve a problem often seen in fixed classrooms, in which students “tend to seek out their own stimulation through movement, off-task talking, or disruptive behaviors.”
3. A good teacher is prepared
Every day, the effective teacher comes to class prepared to teach.
As James Stronge writes in his influential book Qualities of Effective Teachers, “organizing time and preparing materials in advance of instruction have been noted as [among] the most important aspects of effective teaching.”
But “preparation” can be a confusing term; two different teachers might have completely different definitions of what, exactly, constitutes a truly “prepared” instructor. Consider the action items below to bolster your preparation — and ensure you feel confident addressing your class at the start of every lesson.
Teacher skills for effective preparation
- Know your content — In chapter three of Educating Teachers of Science, Mathematics, and Technology, the authors argue that content preparation is critical for high-quality teaching, writing that it is “positively related to student achievement within specific subjects, especially in mathematics and science.” So, how can you be more prepared with your content knowledge? Consider the three pillars highlighted among the INTASC Core Principles on the Expectations of Teachers’ Content:
- Knowledge — The teacher understands major concepts, assumptions, debates, processes of inquiry, and ways of knowing that are central to the discipline(s) s/he teaches.
- Dispositions — The teacher realizes that subject matter knowledge is not a fixed body of facts but is complex and ever evolving. S/he seeks to keep abreast of new ideas and understandings in the field
- Performances — The teacher effectively uses multiple representations and explanations of disciplinary concepts that capture key ideas and link them to students’ prior understandings.
Courtesy of the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, consider the following list, “The Types of Things that Teachers Often Do to Prepare for Class”:
- Do the reading and problem sets
- Take notes on the material
- Review lecture notes for the week
- Prepare an outline of issues to cover in class
- Make a list of questions to use in class or write on the board
- Make a handout of topics to discuss in class
- Make a study guide to hand out
- Design a homework assignment or question for students to prepare for a future class
- Compile bibliographies or other outside information related to the material
- Assemble visual material
- Prepare supplemental reading
- Prepare handouts on writing tips, research methods, problem solving, lab techniques, etc.
- Meet with the professor and/or other TFs to discuss the material and how to present it in section
- Review students’ questions to anticipate their concerns, problems, interests
- Make up quizzes
- Devise debates, small group discussion, or other interactive projects
- Copy articles relevant to the discussion at hand from newspapers and other periodicals
4. A good teacher sets high expectations
Effective teachers don’t set limits on their students. They have high standards, they consistently challenge students to do their best, and they are caring professionals who teach students to believe in themselves.
As an educator, you know you should always expect the best of your students and encourage them to learn to their utmost potential. But you also know doing so on a daily basis can be incredibly challenging. Fortunately, there are a number of useful ways to set high expectations without burning yourself — or your students — out.
Teacher skills for setting high expectations
- Don’t praise low quality work — In the book High Expectations Teaching, researcher and educational consultant Jon Saphier declares, “Praising low quality work communicates low expectations.” Communicating that message can have grave consequences. If you communicate low expectations to already underachieving students, “you are not … pushing them to meet standards they could actually reach.” While you may encourage students with good intentions, doing so when they hand in or deliver substandard work can negatively impact the learning process on a fundamental level. This highlights the importance of using praise and rewards strategically — and emphasizes the significance of using feedback correctly as a teacher.
- Check for understanding — Teachers with high expectations don’t want any students going out the door without knowing where they stand on the day’s content. Check students’ understanding (for example, by doing a formative assessment) as a dedicated daily (or, to start, weekly) commitment in every lesson. For example, checking questions, performing over-the-shoulder observations of student work, and listening in to group talk are all strategies you can use to communicate your high expectations as a teacher.
- React to changes in performance — A dramatic downturn in a student’s performance represents an opportunity to send strong messages surrounding your academic expectations. A student whose performance has dipped may be told, “This is not the standard of work I know you’re capable of. We need to find out what is happening and make a plan to get you back on track.” Such a remark from a respected teacher can, according to Jon Saphier, “be a powerful spur to a flagging student.” Note that the language around reacting to negative behaviors — as with writing report card comments — requires tact and subtlety; ensure that you frame the comment in a way that provokes the student to consider their own ability to do well. Try to get your students to consider not only that they have the ability to do well, but there is something they have done to bring about the result.
- Deliver feedback according to criteria for success — Research on teaching skills shows positive feedback to be a critical skill for teachers to master, with middle school teacher Hattie Marzano writing, “The most powerful single modification that enhances student achievement is feedback.” Skilful feedback does not simply declare work to be right or wrong, but enables self-correction and self-adjustment. For example, instead of simply saying “You have stated the author’s point of view correctly,” develop your feedback, adding something such as “…but you are missing the reasons behind that point of view. Try to … ” Marzano notes a teacher’s feedback is a “tacit expression of confidence … embedded in the language used about how capable we think students are.” If your feedback is actionable, frequent, detailed, and specific, students will understand you want them to succeed and are supporting them in their effort to master materials.
5. A good teacher practices self-reflection
A 2010 study about the role of critical reflection in teacher education declared teachers “must continually examine and evaluate their attitudes, practices, effectiveness, and accomplishments.” The same study observed that critical reflection enhances teachers’ knowledge and skills, finding it can help instructors “deeply understand the ways in which their teaching styles enhance their ability to challenge the traditional mode of practice” and to “define how they will grow as teachers.”
Without reflection, you run the continual risk of making poor decisions, using bad judgment, or unquestioningly believing that students can always accurately interpret your actions as intended. Without the tendency to assess your own abilities, you may continue to plan and teach on the basis of unexamined assumptions — and remain unaware of your biggest strengths and weaknesses.
Teacher skills for self-reflection
- Use a daily reflection tool such as a journal — In its most basic terms, the goal of journal writing is to provide a record of the significant learning experiences that have taken place during the school day. This helps you take stock of the day’s events and, eventually, identify what strengths and weaknesses consistently come up — helping you pause, review, and gain some perspective on the day’s lesson(s), and, by extension, your skills as a teacher. Moreover, using a journal to record classroom anecdotes will help when it comes time to write report cards or assessments. No matter how involved you are in your students’ progress, it can still be difficult to produce specific examples related to student performance if you haven’t recorded them along the way.
- Try peer observation – Peer observation provides a chance for instructors to view, assess and learn from one another’s teaching. This helps expose teachers to different instructional styles and strategies, stimulating critical reflection on their own classroom habits and methodologies. You might be surprised at how enjoyable the process is — and how willing your colleagues are to collaborate!
- Record lessons — While there are a number of potential insights you can gain from diaries and written self-assessments, they can’t always capture the dynamic, day-to-day processes and events of classroom teaching. Many notable classroom events may not have been observed by the teacher — or even remembered — thus exemplifying the value of diaries or self-reports with audio recordings of actual lessons.
- Practice self-inquiry — Posing “what and why” questions give teachers an important sense of perspective and power over their teaching. Researchers Ryan & Cooper developed a set of questions for reflective teachers to ask:
- What am I doing and why?
- How can I better meet my students’ needs?
- What options are available?
- How can I encourage more involvement or learning on the part of the students?
- Have I considered my own values as a professional and my comfort level acting on those values?
- What conscious choice can I make to make a difference?
A self-assessment: What are the qualities of a good teacher?
Based on the research of Jeffrey Glanz in his book Classroom Strategies for the Beginning Teacher, there are eight categories to consider when quizzing your own teaching skills:
Teacher Skills Category
|Content (subject and general knowledge)||Do you have a strong grasp of the content you are teaching?|
|Pedagogical||Are you well-versed and confident with teaching theory, learning theory, and curriculum theory?|
|Self||Do you know yourself well (e.g. your strengths, limitations, etc.)?|
|Interpersonal (students, parents, administration, community)||Do you relate well to others? How do you know?|
|Questioning||Do you pose varied, thought-provoking questions?|
|Planning||Do you always plan for instruction? Consequences of poor planning include behavior problems, lack of learning, monotonous presentation, lack of respect for teacher, etc.)|
|Classroom Management||Are you having difficulty with classroom management and implementing an effective disciplinary plan?|
|Communication||Are you a good communicator? How do you know?|
6. A good teacher uses teaching strategies
As most educators know, the traditional, teacher-focused, lecture-style teaching method can lead to disengagement and boredom (for both teachers and students) quite quickly.
That’s where the deployment of different teaching strategies comes into play.
In her book Effective Teaching and Learning, Naga Subramani argues that the effective teacher “constantly renews himself [or herself] as a professional on his [or her] quest to provide students with the highest quality of education possible. This teacher has no fear of learning new teaching strategies or incorporating new technologies into lessons.”
You can exhibit this spirit of “fearlessness” with a variety of fun, dynamic and engaging teaching strategies that benefit both the teacher and the student.
Some of the more prominent and useful teaching strategies are outlined below:
- Active learning strategies put students at the center of the learning process, enriching the classroom experience and boosting engagement. Use them to help students talk more openly, think more creatively and — ultimately — feel more engaged in the process of learning.
- Experiential learning activities build knowledge and skills through direct experience, deploying a student-centered approach that empowers participants to take learning into their own hands and apply it in an engaging context.
- Project-based learning uses an open-ended approach in which students work alone or collectively to produce an engaging, intricate curriculum-related questions or challenges. Encourage students to apply skills and knowledge they’ve developed in your classes, and allow students to take their own approaches to develop an answer and deliver a product.
- Inquiry-based learning is a learning and teaching method that prioritizes student questions, ideas and analyses. It is subdivided into four categories, all of which promote the importance of students’ role in the development of thought-provoking questions and ideas.
- Adaptive learning focuses on changing — or “adapting” — learning content for students on an individual basis, particularly with the help of technology.
- Cooperative learning involves delivering instruction through small groups, empowering students to work together to build their understanding of a variety of topics and concepts.
- Differentiated instruction is most aptly defined by its responsiveness to students’ learning preferences, and involves the ongoing use of assessment to collect information about where students are in their learning. Teachers apply this information to vary the learning environment, instruction, and assessment and evaluation.
The Qualities of a Good Teacher: Final Thoughts
There is no single solution to the question of what makes a great teacher.
To those who have never taught, it is difficult to grasp how diverse and dynamic a skillset one needs to succeed in a busy, demanding classroom setting.
For some, these challenges are overwhelming.
But they don’t have to be.
Consider these six qualities — and the actionable methods for putting them into practice — to sharpen and develop your own skills. The results, as you may find, can make all the difference.