A Good Teacher- Leader, Awakener, Builder

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” (Wayne Dyer)

As a virtual mentor with Patricia Briscoe’s Faculty of Education students at Niagara University, a few weeks ago I was asked: What makes a good teacher?

When I started teaching in 1998, I considered three facets as the most relevant: classroom management, differentiation and knowledge of the curriculum. While these are important, as time has passed, I have learned that these are, in fact, embedded in larger, broader aspects of both teaching and learning. As I grew into my own ‘teacher shoes”, I was able to determine where I stood as a teacher. In going beyond the pure survival mode of the beginning teacher years, I have looked deeper into what truly matters.

The primary purpose of teaching is to facilitate learning. In short, good teaching brings about effective learning. The question shifts, therefore, from teaching to learning: How can teachers best facilitate learning?

1.  A Good Teacher Awakens the Soul to Act

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener” (Robert Frost)

Learning requires student engagement, motivation and drive. While some students arrive to school already motivated and determined to meet academic challenges, not all students do. When students walk into my classroom and check into our Zones of Regulation, some are already in the Blue Zone – tired, lethargic and unmotivated.

All teachers are faced daily with a mix of abilities, aptitudes, interests and levels of motivation in their students. An effective teacher motivates all students to rise up to their own potential by evoking the students’ own interests and passions.To awaken even the most unmotivated students, means displaying energy, conviction and enthusiasm as the teacher. Teacher enthusiasm shines through in the manner with which lessons are delivered – the tone, the voice and the projection.

An effective teacher has to believe they can influence change; needs to believe that a student can rise up to overcome challenges. Good teaching involves drawing out student curiosity so as to awaken the dreams and unlock the potential of each student.

2. A Good Teacher Shows Empathy

For effective learning to occur, students’ unique needs must be accounted for and understood. Good teachers display both compassion and empathy for their students. They understand the unique human beings sitting before them and their invisible truths. The underlying reasons behind work avoidance, deviant and disruptive behaviours must be understood. When students have difficulty regulating their own behaviour, steps are taken which are restorative, not necessarily punitive. The social-emotional needs of learners are always more important than the prescribed curriculum. Good teachers know this is their hidden curriculum.

3. A Good Teacher Holds High Expectations For All Students

When high standards are set, all learners benefit. Effective teachers believe that all students are capable of completing quality work, provided the proper access to the right tools and supports. These high expectations and words of encouragement are communicated to students in a variety of ways. Students need to hear, “You can do this!” They also need to hear, “I expect you to know this!” Learning occurs in an environment that values the belief that all students can learn – given adequate time, instruction and accommodations. True differentiation starts here.

4. A Good Teacher Sets Clear Learning Goals and Success Criteria

Effective learning occurs when students are aware of the specific learning goals and success criteria of lessons. The steps to learning are made visible through posted goals, criteria and snapshots of the learning process. Students need to know what quality work looks like, and need to be given opportunity to revise and improve their product. Effective teachers monitor student learning and provide timely feedback to students. Decisions about next steps in learning are made directly from the observations made about student learning. Effective teachers know that a unit starting point may be different for each group, each year and is defined by the students in the room.

5. A Good Teacher Is Flexible

Learning occurs best in flexible environments, and with teachers who can shift gears, given the particular needs of  the group, environment or schedule. Flexible teachers create flexible students. Organizational skills are key here. On some days, teaching is like being the juggler in a three-ring circus. It is a continuous, balancing act. Teachers focus on a multitude of tasks and needs, while monitoring and supporting their students.

The learning space itself is flexible, providing students with choices in their own learning. A good teacher realizes that not all students learn in the same way, or at the same pace.

Flexible options are available to students, in seating and product – to maximize on students’ learning styles and strengths.

6. A Good Teacher Leads to Deep Thinking

Learning involves deep thinking, in environments which value questioning, evaluating and analyzing. Good teaching involves leading students, but encourages them to construct their own knowledge by thinking critically about what is presented. Students understand that making mistakes is key to the learning process. The classroom climate supports risk taking and students feel confident exploring and making connections.  Good teachers follow the Gradual Release Model. By asking effective questions themselves, teachers model the inquiry process and set a course for student innovation.

7. A Good Teacher is the Lead Learner

Effective teachers are constantly seeking out new and innovative ways of teaching. Each year, with each class, comes a new spectrum of student abilities and needs. Lessons and units need to be adapted accordingly. Good teachers connect with others in their own schools, boards and globally through social media to share best practices. Good teachers have a comprehensive knowledge of the curriculum, and find engaging ways to assist students in learning concepts.  Sometimes, they need to go back to the drawing board, when things don’t work out.  In order for effective learning to occur, teachers must constantly evaluate and assess their own pathways. They understanding that teaching also involves learning alongside their students.

8. A Good Teacher is a Great Communicator

Effective learning comes from teachers who understand that clear communication is both expressive and receptive. Teachers must know how to present information in a clear manner, and in a variety of ways. Sometimes, material needs to be paraphrased, information must be simplified or accompanied by visual cues. Good teachers are also effective listeners. They provide appropriate wait time, but also realize that “listening” to students also involves looking at non-verbal cues to interpret if students have understood the material.  

9. A Good Teacher Focuses on Relationships

Learning occurs best when students feel safe, accepted and valued. These feelings are elicited from warm, enthusiastic and approachable teachers. These teachers value the role of  the student-teacher relationship. They greet students at the door, and are physically and mentally present with their students. When relationships are built, and students trust their teachers, they feel more comfortable facing challenges and taking risks.

10. A Good Teacher is A Master Builder

Good teachers are ultimately “Master Builders.” They are builders of: classroom culture, student esteem, parental relationships and student learning.  They build upon the foundation of what each child arrives to school with each day. Sometimes, they must fill the gaps in the foundation with mortar. Sometimes, the plan does not go as scheduled, but the Master Builder must keep laying the bricks, continue building higher and persevere with the goal in sight.  A builder knows that he “may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker.” (Oscar Romero). A good teacher never knows where his influence stops. With that in mind, he keeps on building.

Teaching has changed tremendously since I began in 1998.  I have learned that teaching means adapting to changes in our culture, environment and in the broader world.  It is important to realize that we are always in flux and, therefore, we must be open to learning new and innovative things. The world we are enabling our students to move into, is one we could not have fathomed  when we, ourselves, were students.

The most important thing I tell teachers whom I mentor, is that they need to walk in their own shoes. They must emulate the best practices of  their mentors, but bring forth their own experiences, ideals, values and gifts. These attributes are uniquely theirs to use and to share. Good teaching comes from a deep place within us ; it comes from our most authentic selves.

“The influence of a good teacher can never be erased.”