I have a masters degree in education but I learned more about what it takes to be a great teacher and coach from having great mentors and through 10+ years of experience.
Here are seven characteristics that will help you become a great teacher so that you can be more effective, inspiring, find more fulfillment in your profession, and leave a lasting impact on students.
Students can sense energy. They know when you are excited, engaged, and love the material you are teaching. Kids are many things and cunning is one of them. They can tell when you are faking and going through the motions versus when you are passionate about the subject.
Your excitement becomes their excitement. If you want to ensure that your class is bored and checked out, show up lethargic and ready to punch the clock.
They will return this energy in kind.
But passion doesn't mean you need to be a ‘ra-ra’ cheerleader. That is not my style. What it means is you need to be physically, mentally, and emotionally present and you have to be as excited to teach and learn today as you were on ‘Day One.’
Because every day is game day. Treat it as such and you will find that students come ‘ready to play.’
There is a famous saying that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.
There is a lot of truth in this statement.
You want to be a great teacher? Learn their names FAST. Don't be that teacher who makes the excuse you aren't "good with names" because guess what, your student will say they aren't good with "insert subject matter."
Another reason learning names and taking an interest is so important is the business and human nature concept of reciprocation. In business, people naturally want to reciprocate. You do something for someone without an expectation and usually at some point the favor will be returned. Or when you do have an ask the other person will want to help.
By taking a genuine interest you eliminate friction, sense of entitlement, and you don’t have to rule through force.
When a teacher can bounce from student to student asking how their play went, or how the game went, or how that part-time job is going, or what their favorite subject is, or how they are recovering from that sports injury, you automatically are going to get students to want to try a little harder for you. Multiple this over time and more students and you are going to have the foundation to build a positive learning environment.
Whether you like it or not students are wondering "why do I care," "why does this matter," “when will I ever use this?"
Instead of running from this, get there first.
Meaning is what gives education power. Instead of regurgitating disconnected and superficial facts, meaning inspires a love of wonder and curiosity by giving students the opportunity to uncover a deeper knowledge of the material.
In my field of history, meaning is what makes the events and ideas of the past relevant to the lives of today. I use the Stamp Act of 1765 and the separation of powers principle in our Constitution as common examples of two important events and principles that aren’t taught with the proper meaning.
For instance, instead of the Stamp Act being an unlawful tax on the colonists, what if it is the attempt of a government to blanket a free people by force to their laws, to enslave them without consent, and to dominate the free society that the people live in? How must free people respond? How can free people respond? What would a free people say to inspire bravery and support against such an act?
This is a fundamentally different way of thinking and approaching the subject matter that engages. It all starts with meaning.
Being a great teacher isn’t all about the relationships that you build with students. While important, that relationship will become superficial and students will aim to take advantage of it without a rigorous and serious learning environment. That learning environment stems from your subject matter knowledge. A teenager wants to know that you know what you are talking about. Nothing turns a teenager student off to the learning process when they have lost faith in your knowledge of the material. They can tell when you aren’t that into it or if you are just skimming the surface, following the textbook and making the learning experience shallow, boring, and redundant.
If you want them to be at their best you have to give them something to strive for.
A great basketball player isn’t great because they scored 50 points in one game and then scored 4, 7, 9, 3, 2, and 11 in the following six. Great players are consistently great. Fans know what they can expect and opposing players know what they are up against game after game. In a learning environment it is this consistency that will create a lasting impression and long-term respect from students. If you run hot and cold, let your emotions change how you teach, or fluctuate in your level of preparedness this will all impact the expectations and student-teacher dynamics.
This doesn’t mean that you have to play the best game of your life every day in your learning environment. It just means that you have to be steady and consistent with who you are, play to your strengths, and give students a consistent opportunity to grow.
Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement. Great entrepreneurs never stop getting better. They are always trying to improve and hone their skills and their craft. They do so because it is in their nature to improve. Not because they are forced to for some “personal development” requirement. A great teacher looks at their learning environment the same way that an entrepreneur looks at their business.
Students sense this in your approach and lifestyle. It is also something you can model for them. When they see you constantly questioning, learning, and growing and doing so not because you feel you have to but because you want to you are modeling what success in life looks like.
The higher the standard the more likely you are to raise the average. When an adult, teacher, coach sets a low standard of behavior kids, students, and players will sink to that level. As adults there is a saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most amount of time with. This saying depicts what we intuitively know, we rise and fall to the level of our environment.
In order to create an exceptional learning environment YOU must be the leader and control the standard. When you do this you will come to realize that students enjoy being held to a high standard, students do not want anarchy in the classroom, and that students want you to lead so that they can learn how to follow and focus on learning.
An important aspect of representing these characteristics is that they do not just impact how you teach and how much your students learn with regards to the subject matter. You also become a professional role model on how a successful adult and contributing member of society should carry themselves. These characteristics aren’t just teaching and coaching traits but really leadership qualities in any endeavor. They should be modeled and taught as such. You should tell your students why you act the way you do so they can see you in action as a leader, professional, mentor, and a teacher and learn how to do the same. For that is the true legacy of being a great teacher, you never know where your influence stops.