What Makes a Great Teacher?

Parade magazine’s cover story this past week was about Sean McComb, recently named the 2014 National Teacher of the Year in a competition run by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

In a press release issued by the CCSSO, McComb, who teaches at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore, is quoted as saying:

My teaching is built on the belief that relationships and engagement can turn challenges into opportunities for excellence for all students. As we embrace that truth, we help awaken students to their full potential and the possibility to live out the American dream.

Congratulations to both McComb and his students, the beneficiaries of his skills and passion.

The story got us to thinking: What makes a great teacher? There’s no one right answer, of course, but here are some of the things we think are most important:

1. Passion: You can’t fake a passion for educating kids – if you’re not 100% in the game, they’ll know it (and either walk all over you or ignore you completely).

2. Empathy: The best teachers understand on a deep level that kids are different and require different tactics and approaches to learning. They also possess a memory of how hard it is sometimes to be 6, or 16, or any age in between.

3. Creativity: Book learning is all well and good, to the extent it goes, but the very best teachers bring their subjects to life in a variety of ways.

4. Diplomacy: No teacher is an island. The best of the best are adept at maintaining good relationships with students, parents, and administrators – which is, as you surely know, no mean feat. Disagreements are inevitable, and successful teachers know how to defuse them effectively.

5. Communications skills: We’ve all had teachers who were scary smart, and maybe even highly passionate about their subjects, but couldn’t translate that effectively to a room full of students (“Bueller? Bueller?”). The best teachers are equally adept at communicating with parents and keeping them engaged in the teaching experience.

6. Patience: No explanation required.

7. Persistence: It can take several tries to reach a certain student, or teach a difficult concept in a way the class can grasp. Good teachers know that this is all part of the territory and don’t get discouraged.

8. Knowledge of their subject matter: It’s not enough for a teacher to know his or her subject inside and out – but it is absolutely necessary.

9. The ability to work on the fly: Fire drill? Failed lab experiment? Prepared lesson plan that’s putting the students to sleep in front of your eyes? Good teachers are always able to shift to Plan B (or Plan C or D) at a moment’s notice, when the situation calls for it.

10. Deep, true belief in their students: Sometimes a special teacher is the only one who believes in a challenging student – and sometimes that’s all it takes for that student to succeed.

What do you think makes a great teacher? We’d love to get your thoughts in the comments!

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