What great teachers do is change lives. How do they do that? What qualities do they share that make them so effective and powerful?
At the beginning of each school year, you cross your fingers and toes hoping that your child will get a great teacher. Someone who makes them feel safe and comfortable and valued. Someone who will help them thrive.
Different kids have different needs; whether it be because of personality type, or because a child is disabled, non-neurotypical, or perhaps because they get more love at school than they do at home. (It’s sad, but it happens) The perfect teacher for one child will not be perfect for another.
All that said, there are trends and behaviours that we know are effective.
So, what are great teachers doing?
1. Building relationships with students that are warm and respectful.
Relationships are everything in education. Great teachers build on supportive bonds daily, so that students know they are safe to take social and learning risks.
2. Establishing clear, workable boundaries in school behaviour.
When boundaries are clear there is a framework for respect. Everyone knows where they stand and what is expected. There is a sense of security in that. Good teachers do this in a warm, encouraging way.
3. Negotiating learning goals with students.
Education shouldn’t happen to kids, it should happen with them. Together, teachers, students, and parents should be setting short and long-term, measurable, achievable goals that matter to the child.
4. Building relationships with parents and involving them in the learning process.
Teachers have educational expertise, parents have relational knowledge of their child. Together this combination is unstoppable. Great teachers engage parents in learning rather than just involving them in activities.
5. Making the process of learning and assessment transparent.
None of this should be a mystery to a child. Good teachers explain, “This is what we are learning, this is why we are learning it, this is what I am looking for, this is how you can show me you understand.” With the right language, this can start as young as pre-primary. Assessment is a way of celebrating what has been learned and finding out what hasn’t been mastered yet. It isn’t just a list of numbers in a spreadsheet.
6. Ensuring each child is seen, heard and appreciated by the school community.
When a child understands that they matter, they become even greater and they ensure other people feel as though they matter too. That’s how we create an inclusive, empathetic society.
7. Modelling a passion for learning.
Kids fall in love with ideas and subjects when they are presented to them in a passionate manner. They fall in love with learning when they associate it with wonder and energy.
8. Great teachers are surprising kids.
They’re doing the accents when they read a book, they’re showing them astonishing animals and plants, they’re opening doors to ideas that blow kids’ minds.
9. They are challenging their students.
They know how to edge kids beyond their comfort zone but not so far that they are afraid. They help a child find his/her flow…the spot where the magic happens.
10. Laughing with students.
Laughter releases endorphins that make us relax and feel included. When students have those happy chemicals, they are more open to learning. That feeling encourages teachers to give even more. Laughing together also creates important bonds.
11. Knowing their stuff.
Great teachers know their content. When they know their content and their kids, it’s possible to make the learning much more interesting and effective. Great teachers don’t generally do the same things year in, year out.
12. Admitting mistakes and apologising.
Nobody is perfect, and we learn from our mistakes and failures. It is important to role model this as much as any other aspect of learning.
13. Talking about their emotions and modelling regulation.
Okay, they’re not oversharing, but they are acknowledging their emotional responses and talking about how those feelings can be managed positively. In this way, they acknowledge the social-emotional learning that underpins our curriculum.
14. Supporting their peers and accepting support from others.
Teaching is hard work emotionally and intellectually. There is a constant and rapid cycle of change. Expectations from both within the system and from the wider community loom large. Great teachers support their colleagues and accept support in return.
15. Finding a work-life balance.
Teaching is full-on, and your life becomes carved into term-long increments, but teachers can’t save life just for the holidays. They will burn out. We lose 50% of teachers in their first five years. As difficult as it is, good teachers are those who put their wellbeing first.
16. Blurring the boundaries between learning and life.
Learning doesn’t just happen in isolation. Learning is life! Great teachers turn students onto learning and then they turn them into life-long learners.
No teacher is perfect all the time. Some teachers will never be perfect for your child. But if, over the course of their school career, your child finds just the right teacher, even just for a year or two… It will make all the difference, forever.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is a writer, speaker and consultant in Western Australia.