What makes a great teacher?

I was talking with a few adults last weekend about teachers from our past. One person began reminiscing about a teacher and proceeded to list several areas he believed she could have done better. Classroom management was one area in need of improvement. He stated that she didn’t seem to have any control over the kids in her room. He also mentioned she could have done a better job at engaging her students in more meaningful activities. At the end of his rant, he quickly added, “But she was a great teacher.”

That got me thinking… How can a person who has no control over her classroom and does not engage her students in meaningful lessons still be remembered as a great teacher in the eyes of her students? So I wonder, what DOES make a great teacher? I don’t think that is an easy question to answer, nor do I believe the answer is the same for everyone. To help me think about the question more, I went to my students and to my social media and asked the same question: What do you think makes a great teacher? I cannot say I was surprised by the answers I received, but I do think it provides some good food for thought.

Some very common responses I heard from my students included a person who is nice, kind, or caring. Someone who is funny and makes learning fun. A person who is willing to help students when they need it and listens closely. Someone who goes out of their way to get to know students and to make personal connections with them. This did not surprise me. How many of you want to spend the majority of your day with someone who isn’t nice to you or doesn’t make an effort to get to know you better?

With each of my classes, I asked students to write a response to this question. In the end, I allowed some to share their ideas if they wanted. One student giggled as he raised his hand to share the following response:

“a good teacher should give zero homework and give zero tests and pop quizzes also a good teacher should give every body an A+ even if they are not smart.”

He hadn’t even finished his statement before an uproar broke out among the rest of the students in that class. Students were shouting out their reactions to his thoughts from every side of the room, but it might not be the kind of reactions you’re expecting. I heard things like,

“Are you kidding?! That’s not a good teacher!”

“Then you wouldn’t learn anything!”

“How would you know how to do anything later in life?!”

So many students talk about not liking school, and yet, they know how important learning is and how fun and empowering learning can be. They want to be here. They want to feel successful. They want to feel supported.

There were a few students who touched on ideas about individuality. A great teacher is someone who is flexible and willing to learn with the students. Someone who recognizes the growth and improvement a student makes and not just their final product. Someone who understands each student has different learning styles and preferences. 

These are the thoughts that were nearly unanimously echoed by the adults who chose to respond to my social media question. There is an apparent need for teachers to be able to recognize the differences that exist among their students and to support each of those differences. Another thing teachers must consider is the bigger picture. They need to recognize outside circumstances students find themselves in and nurture with respect. One person put it so eloquently: “A good teacher does not go up the inference ladder when working with children and families….they stay grounded in the work of making a difference for every child given the gifts they bring.”

People (kids and adults) want a teacher who will take the time to get to know them, to learn their strengths and struggles, to listen to their individual needs, and to find ways to help and encourage learning through avenues that work for them… while throwing in a few laughs along the way.

I received responses to this question from over 80 people of different ages. What stood out to me more than anything else was the fact that not one person mentioned anything about content, assessments, or standards. Interesting, but not surprising. I could now swerve off-course and delve into what students and families want from teachers versus what teachers are being held accountable for by state and national mandates… but I won’t. I don’t think it’s necessary. We all know what’s best for our youth.

One student said he thinks a good teacher is someone who, when thinking about them years later, should bring back positive memories. I’m not sure about you, but I can name only a handful of teachers from my past who I can even remember. The ones I do remember do just that – elicit positive thoughts. We all want to be a positive memory in someone’s thoughts one day…

Some responses were so beautifully written, I just have to share …

A great teacher is someone who:

“sees the gold in you…”

“encourages and lifts you up…’

“shows genuine care…”

“sees things through the students’ eyes…”

“shows love and understanding…”

“is emotionally invested…”

“has the ability to recognize what motivates their students individually…”

“makes their students aspire to do better…”

“lifts each student…”

“recognizes each student’s personal gifts…”

Now I ask you … what do YOU think makes a great teacher?





2 thoughts on “What makes a great teacher?

  1. I understand why you don’t dive into it here, but you raise a fascinating question about the difference between the qualities of a good teacher and the standards by which they are judged. I suppose that’s a different post.

    I loved hearing that your students understand the value in education, and I think you can take a lot of credit for that.


  2. Maggie Schoenfeld says:

    A good teacher listens, as a student’s words are gold.

    A good teacher can also
    show a student where to look, but not what to find.


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