What makes a Great Teacher?

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I have been asking myself and my students this question for a very long time. When I ask this question, students usually take a minute before they give me an answer. They usually think about teachers who have made an impact in their lives and describe a general personality trait or quality of those people. People tend to intuitively know what a great teacher is but cannot really explain how they know. The question of what makes a teacher great is incredibly complex and multi-layered. There is no satisfying all-encompassing definition that people will agree on since the answer varies tremendously from individual to individual. What I do propose is a way of thinking about this problem and identifying suitable criteria to form a more accurate understanding of greatness. 

This question is important because great teachers make a difference, period. It is a question that is not only about having above-average skills or experience, but ultimately a question about professionalism, mastery and legacy. What is greatness? How can we achieve greatness? Can we label ourselves as great? Or do other people have to acknowledge it as well? What is the difference between amateurs and professionals? There are many related questions that are equally interesting and may require several more essays to answer. This question is important for me because it is my goal to be considered a great teacher, not only be my students but by my peers. This answer is my blueprint, my map, and my manifesto.

Teaching, like most skills, can be broken down into several sub-skills. However, just having the right skillset doesn’t necessarily make someone an extraordinary teacher. There are many skilled teachers who are not great teachers, but great teachers are definitely skilled. In terms of thinking about excellence, there’s no difference between asking “what makes a great teacher?” and “what makes a great athlete?” or “what makes a great doctor?” To judge whether a person is truly great in his or her field, there are several aspects to examine: 

  • Character
  • Motivation
  • Talent
  • Credentials
  • Results

Many of these qualities overlap with questions about reputation, trust, or credibility. Ultimately, you want to be taught by a great teacher because you know you are getting a great return on your investment. You know that you will get a quality education. You maximize the chance of having a better future. Teachers are in the business of education. Education is not about books, knowledge or thinking. Education is about love, confidence and hope. Teachers sell the hope of a better future. To do this, teachers take on several roles. Teachers are programmers who upgrade their students software. Teachers are entertainers who inspire their students to continue reaching for the stars. Teachers are coaches who motivate their students and help them overcome obstacles. Teachers are architects who design a structure for knowledge. Teachers are storytellers who guide their students on a journey of learning. Teachers are entrepreneurs who sell their students a vision of a better tomorrow. Great teachers have credibility. 

My favorite definition of character comes from a book written by J. Clinton Ransom, “All that a man is and does; his habits and appetites; his imaginings, reasonings and memories; his faith, his hope, his love, are blended together in character.” How can teachers hope to influence their students if they do not model the very kind of values that are required from them? Good character then is a priceless possession and a true measure of an honorable career. Teaching is often regarded as a noble profession, a calling. It is also an activity that most people engage in at one time or another as parents, workers, friends or lovers. Each day, as we interact with other people, we’re making choices and thereby building a reputation. In short-term relationships or infrequent interactions, we’re mostly blind to people’s character flaws, but in the long-term, with more information about people’s thought patterns and behavior, our judgement of a person’s character and personality becomes more accurate. Teaching is a long-term activity to the extent to which character building becomes a moral requirement. Teachers are role models, and when given that kind of responsibility, they have a moral duty to work on their character. Character building refers to developing and practicing a virtuous life. It’s something that both teachers and students can practice. There are hundreds of virtues, yet, no real consensus on which one’s are the most important. It would be arrogant for me to write down the cardinal virtues of great teachers. I would encourage everyone to write down the virtues that their ideal selves would possess. Then, following the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, find a way to practice these virtues as much as possible. You could dedicate each day or each week to a different virtue. You could also work on specific virtues in particular situations – family gatherings, work, home, marriage, etc. A list of virtues important for teachers might include:

It is highly unlikely that any person can be virtuous all the time in all types of situations, the best thing we can hope for is a maximization of virtue. I believe in living a value-oriented lifestyle, success for me personally means to grow – spiritually, physically, intellectually and emotionally – each day and live according to my value system. My fundamental virtues include compassion, curiosity, courage, humility, integrity, industry, respect, perseverance, temperance, and wisdom. 

A simple heuristic that I use to work on integrity is the grandma rule: don’t do anything that your grandmother wouldn’t be proud of. Every time I answer this question, I know exactly what I can or cannot do. In addition, it’s important to achieve a good balance of character. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, talks about finding the golden mean between any virtue and vice. He argues that there can both be an excess or a deficiency of any virtue. For example, humility is the golden mean between pride and cowardice. Another example is diligence, which lies between sloth and obsession. In Aristotle’s opinion, one which I agree with, wisdom is the cornerstone for all other virtues. Practical wisdom is what enables people to find this golden mean. If life were a journey, then virtue is the compass you use to navigate and wisdom is the light that shines on the path.  

A prerequisite to greatness is, without a doubt, purposeful and directed effort. How can one be successful without that? It is in the pursuit of goals that people find their most usefulness. Motivation is the fuel necessary for this sustained effort. Motivation is not just purpose or direction, it’s much more nuanced and complicated than that. Motivation can be best understood and categorized as a matrix:

In recent years, intrinsic motivation is seen as better than extrinsic motivation. Common self-help adages reiterate this concept: follow your passion, do what you love, carpe diem, start with why. As a result of higher and higher standards of living in most parts of the globe, people’s basic needs are increasingly being met. Daniel Pink, in his popular book Drive, argues that once those basic needs – food, sleep, safety, warmth, employment, healthcare – are met, people shift towards goals of self-actualization (borrowing a term from Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs). Pink identifies three main drivers of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. These three drivers are an adequate storytelling device but the actual drivers of human behavior are much more personal and multifaceted. Extrinsic motivation that’s “thrust upon us” as Shakespeare once said, can be as powerful as a motivator as passion or purpose. 

Motivation for teachers come in various shapes and sizes – love for learning and teaching the subject matter (positive internal); praise from students and staff members (external positive); student test scores (external positive); long vacations, working condition and job security (external positive); coming from a family of academics (external negative); yearning for a sense of community (external positive); competition between colleagues (external positive); or insecurity and a need to be liked (internal negative). There’s no one-size-fits-all motivation package for great teachers. Great teachers understand the importance of knowing what motivates them, and designing their schedules to not rely on motivation but on habit. One of the biggest differences between amateurs and professionals is consistency. Whereas, amateurs require inspiration to work, professionals just show up at work each day. Great teachers understand that there are no shortcuts to mastery, they work consistently on their craft and hope that their skills experience a compound effect overtime; and with a lot of luck, maybe even build a lasting legacy. The bottom line is that even though there may be a list of universal human drivers, we’re still all motivated by different things.


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