What are the qualities of a great teacher? Students tend to intuitively recognize greatness without being able to explain how they know. When I ask this question to my students, they usually think about a teacher who made an impact in their lives; then, they describe a personality trait—funny, patience, curious. There won’t ever be a satisfactory all-inclusive definition because great teaching is part art, part science—self-evident yet impossible to describe precisely. Even so, I have attempted to define this elusive phenomenon. The criteria that determine greatness—character, personality, motivation, competence, results, peer evaluation—serve as my blueprint, my map, my manifesto.
Great teachers make a difference, period. But what is greatness? How can we achieve greatness? Can we label ourselves as great? Or do other people have to acknowledge our greatness? Is greatness the same in every domain—is it different in sports compared to teaching for example? There are many related questions that are equally interesting and may require several more essays to answer. These questions are important for me personally, because it is my goal to be considered a great teacher both by my students and by my peers. I believe that working on these areas will help teachers maximize their chances for greatness. These six characteristics are not exhaustive but a step toward deeper understanding and combine to form a person’s goodwill, reputation, trustworthiness, and credibility.
The title of this writing was inspired by the book, The Successful Man in His Manifold Relations with Life, published in 1886 during the Gilded Age. Time has a tendency of devaluing objects and ideas, yet, much of the wisdom in this book is still relevant to this day. Reading this book made me aware of how little self-help literature has changed or will change. My favorite definition of character comes from the author, J. Clinton Ransom. He wrote, “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.” Exemplary character then is a priceless possession and a true measure of an honorable career.
How can teachers hope to influence others if they do not model the very kind of values and virtues that are required from their students? Teachers are role models working in a noble profession. Some teachers even have the ability to influence an entire generation. Wielding that kind of power and responsibility, they have a lifelong duty to build their character and live virtuously. They should, in the immortal words of Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change they wish to see in the world.” Students can easily identify hypocrisy: the mismatch between words and actions. As guardians of values and behavior, they have a moral requirement to instill good character in their students. They must teach and explain the value of authenticity, balance, curiosity, confidence, compassion, courage, charity, diligence, discipline, fairness, friendliness, frugality, generosity, gratitude, honesty, honor, humility, integrity, industry, justice, kindness, learning, love, loyalty, order, patience, perseverance, politeness, reliability, respect, resilience, self-control, self-knowledge, sincerity, simplicity, temperance, trust, and wisdom. Day in and day out, teachers should lead by example and not by endless preaching. Their character must be consistent. Great teachers do not shy away from teaching ethics or talking about the practical dilemmas of living. Using evidence from history, literature, and experience, they instruct on right and wrong, good and evil, and truth and falsehood. Great teaching transmits knowledge but also the desirable qualities of human character.
In Courage to Teach, the legendary teacher Parker Palmer writes, “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” Teaching is an extension of the teacher’s character and personality. Character and personality overlap but the key difference is time and direction. Character will determine if students respect the teacher a few months down the line or even a few years into the future. Is the teacher authentic, compassionate, honest, loyal, reliable, or wise? Character is internal and will reveal itself over time. On the other hand, personality is external and easy to gauge relatively quickly. Personality will determine if students like the teacher on the first day, first week, or first month. Is the teacher caring, energetic, friendly, humorous, patient, optimistic, or smart? Great teaching requires both qualities: an unwavering character and a positive personality.
Personality is a lubricant, facilitating learning and instruction. How much warmth does the teacher radiate? How trustworthy is the teacher? How competent is the teacher? When students trust their teachers, when they know that teachers have their best interest at heart, they are far more motivated, more engaged, and more active. When teachers have great personalities, they are able to establish rapport with their students and create a harmonious, symbiotic relationship essential for learning. So, is there a “best” personality? Personality traits such as extroversion, organization, and empathy have been found to be positively correlated with good teaching. But not every teacher’s personality will match with every student’s personality. Teachers should not necessarily “change” their personality, but they should “expand” their personalities so that they have a bigger bag of tricks. A more expansive personality helps teachers adapt better to different students and different circumstances. Regardless, there are definitely negative personality traits to avoid. Who would want a cynical, lazy, and unreliable instructor? Or a disorganized, forgetful, and uninterested teacher? Teachers should express themselves authentically and embrace the good, the bad, and the ugly. They do not have to hide their warts and all but should still strive to put their best foot forward every single day.
A prerequisite to greatness is purposeful and directed effort. How can it be otherwise? Motivation is the fuel necessary for sustained, long-term effort. It connotes self-discipline, self-control, and direction. Without motivation, how can one preserve through all the setbacks and roadblocks? Most teachers burn out after the first few years because they don’t understand how to maintain their motivation, they don’t know their own personal motivation matrix, and they are unsure of their direction. Unfortunately, the demands of teaching cause many educators to lose heart and quit the profession altogether. In contrast, great teachers maintain a healthier balance in different areas of their lives. They realize the importance of self-care to avoid burnouts, allowing them to stay motivated in the long run.
Motivation is multifaceted and comes in all shapes and sizes. Teachers might find themselves in education because they are deeply passionate about a subject (internal-positive). They might have an overwhelming need to be liked (internal-negative). They might be attracted to long vacations and favorable work-life balance (external-positive). They might come from a family of academics and expected to continue the tradition (external-negative). Each teacher is motivated by a combination of different things. Whether motivation is born out of passion or a sense of duty is beside the point. For teachers, the key is to figure out what exactly motivates them and use that as fuel. Furthermore, great teachers emphasize consistency and habit over bursts of inspiration. They are professionals who recognize that there are no shortcuts to mastery, who show up to work every day, and who steadily work on their craft so that their skills compound over time. They are motivated (or at least, pretend to be) each day and bring positive energy to their classrooms. Because what is the alternative? Unmotivated, uninspiring, and demoralizing teachers who spread negative energy and depress their students. Is that an environment conducive to learning? Absolutely not. Students can tell whether their teachers regard teaching as a stepping stone or a true calling.
Are great teachers born or made? People can be born with a passion for learning, the motivation to teach, and personality traits that unlock the joy of learning in others. But teaching is a craft. Craftsmen or craftswoman don’t achieve greatness through talent alone. Banner and Cannon in The Elements of Teaching elegantly observed, “One does not start out teaching in possession of all the fully developed qualities of a fine teacher. With experience and self-knowledge, however, these qualities grow and ripen; and after having felt intimidated by the demands of teaching and often discouraged by the dimensions and responsibilities of work, one can come close to mastering its challenges and become a teacher in the fullest sense of the word.” With time, experience, education, guidance, practice, failure, and reflection, teachers grow into true masters of their craft.
Teachers need to be competent in pedagogical principles and achieve a deep understanding of the subject. Great teachers are lifelong learners with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. They are willing to suffer for a never-ending quest to update their worldview since knowledge is always work in progress. Moreover, they need to master skills such as active listening, analytical and critical thinking, creativity, classroom management, communication, cultural awareness, feedback delivery, goal setting, lesson planning, questioning tactics, research, teaching methodologies, and time management. In addition, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills such as self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-reflection, persuasion, showmanship, social and emotional intelligence, are equally important. Great teachers are open to knowledge and open to their students’ opinions—never dogmatic. Teachers without these skills or a strong knowledge of the technical content quickly lose authority and respect in the classroom.
Teaching is also a creative act, interweaving the golden threads of education, experience, and ideas through minds and spirits. Teachers are more than knowledge bearers, they are also creative guides who take students on a shared journey of learning. Great teachers understand that the pursuit of knowledge is cooperative and collective. They view themselves not as the ultimate authority but as truth-seeking companions with the subject lying at the center of the dynamic between teacher and student. By combining pedagogical expertise, subject mastery, soft skills, a little romanticism—love, hope, wonder—and creativity, these journeys fill and enlarge students’ mind, spirit, and emotion. Great teaching simply cannot be reduced to content, methodology, or technique. As Palmer asserted, “Good education is always more process than product.”
What is the ultimate destination of the shared journey between teacher and student? Is it graduation, admission to higher education, a certification, a job, a promotion? Is teaching simply about transferring content knowledge? Or about general skills such as number sense, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, research, communication, and time management? Is education about developing the human intellect or about transferring virtue? Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” But what about the social aspects: relationship building, relationship maintenance, conflict resolution, negotiation, influence, likability? What about the intangible aspects of learning: self-improvement, self-discovery, creativity, motivation, or confidence? Should teachers inspire students to be creative, open-minded, and thoughtful global citizens? Well-rounded lifelong learners who want to make a difference? Perhaps, the goal of education is to inspire self-education—the so-called “learning how to learn.” Or something more metaphoric: William B. Yeats, a 20th century Irish poet, advocated that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Maybe, it’s all of the above.
Great teachers have a proven track record of high performance. On a daily basis, they set clear learning objectives to measure student progress. They guide students through the relevant concepts, skills, and processes in a particular subject. They design interactive and collaborative activities to exercise the social aspects of learning. They project themselves into the mind of students to personalize the instruction. They present a wide range of viewpoints and encourage students to discover their own. All the while, encouraging, empowering, and inspiring their students to reach above and beyond the classroom. They see the big picture and recognize the true purpose of education: to prepare students for life. Life is society, technology, work, and citizenship. Life is spirit, intellect, emotion, and community. Great teachers prepare students for short-term measurable achievements but also for long-term unmeasurable outcomes. The reality is that growth takes time to observe. Students may forget what teachers taught them, but students don’t forget how teachers made them feel. Great educators leave an indelible mark on their students.
A teacher cannot be great who simply wants to be. Greatness must be recognized by others. Every domain has its gatekeepers, a professional guild of people who are guardians of a branch of knowledge and of best practices in the field. These are the masters who have all the qualities of a great teacher and, thus, have the credibility to judge the performance of other teachers. Even mediocre teachers have the ability to identify greatness in other teachers. Hence, it pays considerable dividend to hear what peers say about the teacher. Do the peers sing the teacher’s praises? Do they disapprove of the teacher’s methodology or character? Do they hide or whitewash their true opinion? Do they have no opinion because the teacher lacks experience and/or maturity? Does the feedback fixate on character, personality, competence, results, or student satisfaction? If a teacher is truly exceptional, praise and admiration will usually follow from peers as well as from students.
The benchmark for greatness is comprised of these six factors: character, personality, motivation, competence, results, peer evaluation. Greatness goes far beyond generic personality traits and competence. To add even more complexity, greatness is extremely contextual. Teachers tend to have their own teaching style—an amalgamation of character, culture, personality, motivation, talent, and skills. Either, a teacher can adapt his or her style to the students’ needs; or, we can assume that a teacher has a dominant style and it is a matter of finding the right teacher-student fit. It is extremely rare for an individual to be exceptional in all circumstances. Imagine a great teacher who can really connect with a small group of teenagers but is unable to bring the same spark to a large university class. The human element, with its infinite variability, is at the center of teaching.
The Successful Man in His Manifold Relations with Life, J. Clinton Ransom (1886)
Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer (1997)
The Elements of Teaching, Harold Banner and James Cannon (1999)