What Makes a Good Teacher?

“I loved Clarissa!”, “Clarissa is an awesome teacher!”, “She does not intimidate students and truly creates a good comfortable learning atmosphere”, “I did not even dread going to class, nor did I even desire to skip – loved Clarissa!”, “She’s obviously brilliant and teaches very effectively. She fosters a very supportive and reassuring environment”, “The instructor is amazing – I love Dr. Clarissa”, “She was very enthusiastic and made the class very fun. She’s an awesome teacher! Keep her around!”, “A fantastic professor!”

These are some of the things my students had to say about me at the end of just one semester in their anonymous evaluations. When I walk down the hallway at work and hear people whisper behind my back, “Oh, I love her. Don’t you just love her? She is so amazing”, I always smile because I know that, in all probability, they are talking about me.

People often think that being a brilliant scholar and knowing one’s subject extremely well somehow translates into being a good educator. That isn’t true, though. After you master your discipline, there is still a long and tortuous road you need to travel before you can transmit your knowledge to others and do it effectively.

In academia, we often see teaching as something we need to get through before we can proceed to do the really fun stuff: our research. Research is what brings one prestige, what the tenure committee looks at before considering anything else, what we contsantly work on improving. As a result, teaching is often seen as something that robs us of time and energy we could otherwise dedicate to doing our research. I, however, propose that we approach it from a different angle. If done right, teaching can be something that actually brings us that needed extra burst of energy that we require to produce inspired research.

Of course, when teaching is an endless struggle between a harried, bored and exhausted educator and recalcitrant, sulky and equally bored students, everybody ends up losing. So here are some of the suggestions as to how one can transform one’s teaching experience into a happy, energizing part of your day that gives you wings instead of hobbling you:

1. Leave your problems outside the classroom. We are all human and we all have issues. However, students are not there to serve as a dumping ground for your ill humor or a punching bag for your self-esteem issues. If you catch yourself rolling your eyes, scoffing, sighing contemptuously or snapping at students, then something is deeply wrong. It is very easy to slip into a mode of getting yourself rid of excessive aggression at the expense of students. That, however, is extremely unfair. The distribution of power between students and teachers is never equal. Even if you often feel powerless in the classroom, you are still always more powerful than the students.

2. Don’t be a push-over. I believe that maintaining a strict discipline in the classroom and insisting on constant accountability are marks of respect that teachers and students have for each other. Educators who let students walk all over them do that out of fear and insecurity and not out of love and concern for the students’ welfare. 

3. Don’t punish students for the sins of others. You will be hard pressed to find a teacher who is not unhappy with something his or her administrators, supervisors and colleagues are doing. However, if you feel overworked and underpaid, if you are forced to do things you don’t like, if you are assigned courses you detest and are given a schedule you hate, these are issues that are to be resolved with those who caused them. It’s easier, of course, to unleash your resentments onto the students than to confront the administrators. Punishing the students for the ills of the entire system of education in this country is unfair.

4. Listen. I always ask students at least twice every semester what I could change in the way I teach to make it easier for them to learn. Of course, there is always a couple of people who say, “Give us all As and let us go!” or “Change the format of all exams to multiple choice!” Most people, however, offer really eye-opening, extremely useful suggestions. Students want to learn. They really do. Even if it sometimes seems like all they care about is getting their grade and forgetting about the course entirely, they do want to learn. Why not let them help you figure out the best way to help them learn?

5. And most importantly: Remember that the main tool of trade for every teacher is her or his personality. It isn’t just your knowledge of Spanish literature, physics or philosophy that you bring into the classroom. It is, rather, everything that distinguishes you as a human being.

I have been teaching for 21 years. I have taught little kids, senior citizens, high school students, college students, adults, students with gang affiliations and a history of arrests. However, the teaching philosophy I have shared in this post helped me make these teaching experiences become enjoyable, fruitful, and often life-changing for me and for my students.

I was inspired to write this post by this article that offers a perfect example of the kind of educator one should try not to be. Feel free to share your teaching principles in the comment section.

6 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Teacher?

  1. There’s another very important attribute: be passionately in love with the subject you teach. All of my teachers whom I considered great had that attribute. With it, a teacher can pass on his love to his students. Without it, he can’t. A love of history, poetry or anything else can last a lifetime.

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  2. I really like this post. I would also add “patience and flexibility” to that list. I do a lot of work with kids, as well as TAing for university-aged students, and I’ve found that being willing to backtrack and repeat things and find ways to help reach students that may not necessarily be the way information reached you is integral to a positive learning experience for all involved. Go in with a plan, but be willing and able to modify that plan as you go along based on the students.

    And as a personal note, most of my TA experiences, I’ve been one of the youngest people in the room (as a 2nd year TAing for a 3rd/4th years only class, etc.) and while most of my students figured it out at some point, in general, my way of maintaining discipline/respect in the classroom stemmed from my passion and excitement for the subject, and my willingness to listen and work with the students. And I only once had an issue with a student saying and acting like “You’re 3 years younger than me, why should I have to listen to you?!” – and one in 100+ isn’t that bad…

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  3. I agree with everything you said. And I also agree with the two above commenters that passion and patience are important. Especially passion! On a slightly different note, I also think it’s important to remember that teaching isn’t a popularity contest. Some students aren’t going to like you. And you can’t let that keep you up at night and you can’t let it sway you from teaching practices that you believe in and think are effective. (Although I do think teachers need to re-evalute their teaching practices on a regular basis!) In general, my teaching evaluations are strong….especially with my upper-division majors. However, I do teach a freshman-oriented class on a regular basis. In this class, students will frequnetly complain and get petulant. At first it used to bother me. But now I realize that it’s part of the growing process and they are learning to be college students. So I keep my assignments and I keep the practices that some students complain about because I see that they are effective and help students grow. And, even though I would prefer that all student slike me, I realize that isn’t going to happen and I have to trust myself. There are teachers who want students to like them above all else. And those teachers do a diservice to their student’s education.

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  4. Ultimately, the most difficult form of teaching is teaching something which you do not know yourself. In my field, at least, this is exactly what directing a Ph. D. dissertation entails. And, what one learns doing this is in my experience surprisingly useful in helping with teaching at a more elementary level.

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