Not all teachers are created equal. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a good or a bad thing. For me, it sits somewhere in between. Students should experience a variety of teaching personalities. They should learn from adults with differing worldviews, opinions, objectives, and ideas about education itself. In an idealistic school system, every student would benefit from the qualities that each teacher brings through classroom doors. They would learn equally from the strict one, the easy-going one, the relatable one, and the unconnected one. But we don’t operate in educational utopia and I’m not referring to surface qualities. What I’m referring to are what I think are the 5 best qualities of a good teacher.
When I was in teacher’s college over a decade ago, the prevailing sentiment was to “park your politics and religion when you park your car.” Essentially, the messaging was that teachers should create a schism between their personal identity and their teacher identity. While there certainly are situations where a teacher feels compelled to omit private information, education is no longer that institution where the teacher stands at the front of the class, depositing information to rows and rows of students, and brings no authenticity into learning. And we’re better as a society for it.
Being authentic as a person in your role as a teacher supports the implicit learning that weaves in and out of the curriculum and works to create a culture of individual validation. Simply put, teachers who are authentically themselves while teaching foster students who feel like they belong, too.
If you stopped growing as a partner after your first relationship, how much improved can your next relationship possibly be? Even the relationships between high school sweethearts evolve. The same rule applies to effective teaching. The best teachers continuously try to grow and improve year after year, semester after semester, and sometimes lesson after lesson. Good teachers are reflective of their practice. They excavate their experiences in their classrooms and work to reform their approaches to teaching and learning.
This quality is present in the best teachers. Reason being, reflective educators create learning environments that intrinsically feel safe. When the teacher is willing and open to learning, students are implicitly encouraged to do the same, through a classroom setting that feels and is more equitable.
Curiosity is a centerpiece to learning. And a primary foray into curiosity begins with the question, “Why?” So it shouldn’t take much deduction to understand that one sure-fire way of interrupting the flow of learning and stomping out curiosity comes from teacher uttered statements like, “because I said so” or, “that’s the way we’ve always done things” or, “because we just have to…that’s why.”
Revealing “the science” behind certain teaching methods, exposing the teacher truths that are behind particular activities, and revealing reasons behind some lessons and learning goals won’t put the precarious dynamics of teaching and learning, teacher and student in harm. In fact, transparent teachers more closely knit spaces where students are engaged and informed and take on an added sense of ownership and agency in their learning because they have been exposed to the why behind it. Breaking the fourth wall may ruin a stage performance, but in the best classrooms, it’s just another quality of a good teacher.
In a sense, this quality serves somewhat as an umbrella for the previous three qualities of a good teacher. In order to be adaptable as a teacher you need to be authentic with your students, reflective of situations that arise, and transparent when you change things. On a base level, being adaptive means being flexible. The best teachers have this quality because they understand that learning is cogenerative and not static. Being adaptive actively resists the depository model of teaching. It acknowledges that students are way more than just empty vessels, sitting passively, waiting to be told how to think.
Good teachers are not easily persuaded but they are responsive to the needs of their students. This includes a willingness to compromise. The quality of adaptability caters to a student-centered approach that emphasizes excellence over authority. It curates an accommodating learning environment, which benefits all students. And by being adaptable along with the three previous traits, qualities teachers maintain “authority” without the “because I said so” declarations.
Okay, I included one surface quality in this list. But all good teachers are organized in the broadest sense of the word. They know what they’re doing, they understand where they’re going, they have a plan, and they came prepared. It is very difficult, venturing on impossible, to be a good teacher without owning the quality of being organized.
Now listen, there is a continuum to the quality of being organized. Similar to how we fail to see the organization in, let’s say, a group of elementary boys who are able to head out at morning recess, quickly divide themselves into two fair teams, play a game with rules everyone abides by, make nets, decide on boundaries, keep score and do so until recess is finished. Only to pick their game right back up where it left off at the next recess. That’s organization! Now this type of organization speaks to nothing about the state of these elementary boys’ desks. Like I said, organization is demonstrated on a continuum. And the best teachers have this quality in some form or aspect.
Because good teachers prioritize holistic well being for students first and foremost, they naturally tend to be authentic in the way they show up to do their job, reflective in their practice, transparent in their approach to teaching, adaptable to their school environment, and organized in some manner. Good teachers have a host of other qualities, both surface level and from a philosophical standpoint. But these five, I find, are the most common qualities amongst those folks who do that job of teaching really really well. And that’s because these five qualities mainly foster student validation and belonging.