‘What makes a great teacher?’

I stumbled upon a great article in The Atlantic Magazine about “What makes a great teacher”. The article describes how the ‘Teach for America‘ program hunts for highly successful teacher candidates, by using the results of a four year long research project to predict which people will become successful educators. The article is about three pages long and very well written.

Below I have distilled the main aspects – based upon academic research – of what makes a great teacher:

  • Great teachers tended to set big goals for their students.
  • Great teachers constantly reevaluate what they are doing.
  • … they avidly recruited students and their families into the process
  • … they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning
  • … they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome
  • … they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.
  • For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding: Are the kids—all of the kids—following what you are saying? Asking “Does anyone have any questions?” does not work, and it’s a classic rookie mistake.
  • “Strong teachers insist that effective teaching is neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance,”
  • He follows a very basic lesson plan often referred to by educators as “I do, we do, you do.” He does a problem on the board. Then the whole class does another one the same way. Then all the kids do a problem on their own.
  • The activities come in brisk sequence, following a routine the kids know by heart, so no time is lost in transition.
  • … But ineffective teachers are almost never dismissed. Principals almost never give teachers poor performance evaluations—even when they know the teachers are failing.
  • … great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet.
  • What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record.
  • Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer.

But another trait seemed to matter even more. Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.

In general, though, Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers.

Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

Female applicants are more likely to bring props, which is not a bad thing. In fact, women are more likely to be effective in Teach for America, Duckworth found.

Please read the original article here:


As a teacher, I found it so inspirational to read the article. It reminds me that teaching is a craft, and you improve your skills every day, no matter how long you’ve been in front of a class. Teaching is dynamic, if you don’t constantly change and improve, you move backward.

Below is another list with attributes of a great teacher, put together by Dorai at http://dorai.wordpress.com/2009/11/13/attributes-of-a-great-teacher/.

This list is based on conversations with students and teachers:

  • Dedicated
  • Motivating
  • Engaging
  • Some times entertaining
  • Good story teller
  • Has knowledge of subject matter
  • Conversation starter
  • Inspires students
  • Challenges students to think
  • Can demystify hard subjects
  • Egoless
  • Innovates in teaching methods
  • Life-long learner
  • Has infinite patience
  • Not judgemental
  • Understands student’s difficulties,
  • Understands student’s learning styles
  • Takes pride in students’ achievements

I want to add one little element to this conversation of what makes a great teacher. I do it half in jest, but it is still a serious contribution:

I once overheard a group of Year 9 girls discussing a teacher whom I knew to be a very knowledgeable, interesting and experienced educator. The girls, however, were saying how much they disliked him,…… because he ‘smelled’. And because he ‘always wears the same thing’. Teenagers can be tough on each other, but also on their teachers. So to the list of attributes of a great teacher, I would add ‘impeccable personal hygiene’ and ‘professional dress’. Yes, it may be frivolous, but no matter how great a teacher you are, if you ‘smell’, kids will turn off!