What Does It Mean to be a Great Teacher? (Ten Ideas)

I'm trying to make sense out of my first three days of teaching sixth grade. I can tell that I didn't do enough with my monolingual students, both instructionally and relationally. I allowed language to be more of a barrier than it needed to be. I also recognize that I didn't personalize instruction, both in the sense of making it relevant and in the sense of giving freedom and allowing for choices. So far, it seems like eighth graders will demand autonomy, while sixth graders are still a lingering a little more in the teacher-pleaser mode.

On the other hand, I talked less the first few days than I have in any other year and I made it far less about me. The students learned real content, wrestled with hard concepts and began the process of expressing their social voice. I'm still establishing trust with them and as I read some of their personal narratives, I am struck by both how resilient and fragile life can be. More so than in another other year, I have a stronger sense that learning matters and that I matter as a teacher.

So, with a mixed first week, I'm still struck by the lingering question:

What does it mean to be a great teacher?

I hear a complicated answer from the system. Good teachers use Kagan structures, follow the PLC framework, have clear rules and consequences, have objectives that they go back to frequently, use language objectives, follow the ELD block, have well-constructed lesson plans, raise student achievement. In other words, a good teacher is a good professional and a good professional treats school like a quality-oriented business.

It becomes overwhelming. Yeah, I wear a shirt and tie and I'm all about speaking respectfully. But there's this part of me deep within, the part that weeps for the child whose life has been painful, the part that gets angry when people say "these kids can't . . ." the one who shakes his fist at the sheer number of hours we will spend testing. And that part of me, that little radical who refuses to be suffocated - I have a hunch that's the part of me that makes me a good teacher.

I hear another answer perspective online. Here, students are angels and any action to stifle their natural goodness is coercion and abuse. The vision seems to be less of a teacher as a facilitator and more of a teacher as a warm body. And there's a lot of talk going on about the trendiest new ideas and the boldest statements and the "let the system rot, because it hurts kids" and all the while I have kids writing things like, "I enjoy school, because it's where I feel safe."

I'm more than just a warm body.

So, I circle back to that question:

What does it mean to be a great teacher?

And I'm struck that it is both simpler and more complicated than the view I hear on Twitter and from my district. I'm struck that it is something that takes years to reach. Here's my list:

  1. A love for students: Not a sappy love. Not a "I feel bad for them so I will expect less" kind of love, but a real love. A rugged love. An "I love you enough that I won't let you do that to yourself" kind of love.
  2. A love for the content: A good teacher not only knows the content, but understands how it relates to life. Sometimes this is a playful geekiness. It's the science teacher that still gets overwhelmed by the beauty of the natural world or the math teacher who still gets giddy over how math solves problems in life. 
  3. Solid Pedagogy: I think this piece is often overlooked, especially among nice teachers who manage to do everything well except teaching. However, it's crucial. The strategies themselves need to work. 
  4. Intentionality: I think this is sort-of that ability to tune out what doesn't matter (the edu-world's obsession with TPR reports) and focus on the things that matter most.
  5. An understanding of motivation: This is the sense of nuance in understanding why intrinsic motivation works, but also understanding the complexity of what drives us to do what we do. It's the ability to see behaviors and habits alongside deep human drives. 
  6. Classroom Leadership: I need to know how to develop a community democratically. I need to create an environment of trust. 
  7. Execution: There is a tyranny of the urgent that tends to crowd out the important. We get busy. We forget what matters. We dream up lofty ideas. There's something about great teachers that allows them to execute.  
  8. Personalization: This includes the ability to craft lessons that relate to students' lives along with listening to what students say about their own education - and still having the ability as the leader in the room to help guide students toward what matters. This also includes things like student-teacher conferences and small groups that provide intervention when students need it.
  9. Feedback: I'm still working on making this more efficient and more effective. I feel like great teachers give feedback often in a way that allows students to internalize their own learning. 
  10. Humility: When I screw up I want to apologize. When I succeed, I want my students to get the credit. Humility allows me to gain influence without getting arrogant. It allows me to grow professionally without getting to a place where I think I have all the answers.
I could be wrong with my list of ten. However, when I re-read it, it is far more difficult than being in compliance with district expectations in order to create nice data. It's also more difficult than standing in as a warm body and letting the kids run their own education. People sometimes ask why there aren't more great teachers. 

Here's the secret: It's really hard to pull it off and it takes years to master. It's far less like being a great salesperson and much closer to being a Jedi Knight.

Anyone telling you otherwise is selling snake oil.
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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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47 comments:

  1. I've always believed that the best teachers do what the best students do - try their best. And when they fail, they recognize he opportunity to learn and improve.

    It is a huge oversimplification, but I think it gets to the heart of a major teaching issue - getting set in our ways and being unwilling to do the sometimes seemingly insurmountable amount of work to change.

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    1. Your humility and constant reflection are a part of what make you such a great teacher, Jeff. Seriously, I would love to have my own kids in my class if I lived in San Diego.

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  2. Beautifully written John. I am going to share this with my Content Literacy class.
    -Kevin

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Mr. Bibo. And thanks for coming around again. You were one of my first readers.

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  3. This list is well thought.I will try it out.

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  4. "Here's the secret: It's really hard to pull it off and it takes years to master. It's far less like being a great salesperson and much closer to being a Jedi Knight."

    Well said!

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  5. this seems amazingly accurate...after teaching for 41 years, doing what is best for the kids is still the most important thing!

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    Replies
    1. I love the way you summarized that so succinctly. That's what it comes down to.

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  6. I love that you put this out there! Thx... Keep sharing!

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  7. John, you have such a phenomenal ability to think critically about a topic and then write so clearly and yet so beautifully about that topic. Thanks for sharing with us. If I were to sum up your list of great teacher attributes, it would be as follows: A great teacher leads (does the right things WITH THEM) her / his students rather than manages (does things right FOR THEM) them.

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    1. I like the way you sum that up. It really is about being with rather than doing things for (or even doing things against) them.

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  8. I wish I had this list to give the team interviewing for new teachers. I wonder how it would shape their questioning.
    I continue to struggle with feedback, especially with finding the right balance. Too often I find myself overloading students with "sage advice" when I should be focusing on just a few points.
    One more trait I'd add centers around risk taking and failure. Teachers I admire take risks. They are willing to fail, to put something out that isn't perfect knowing they can learn and improve. I'm beginning to think of this as courage.

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    1. The feedback piece is really hard. I'm still on that journey myself.

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  9. This is a brilliant list. I struggle with #9! I want to give substantial quality feedback in a timely manner, but quality and time do not go hand-in-hand!

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    1. I'm still struggling with it. I'm starting to learn how to get faster at the feedback, but it's not a fast thing. It takes time.

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  10. I just noticed a few tweets regarding this with phrases like, "Do you match up?" or "Is this you?" Honestly, this isn't meant to be a "buck up and be better" kind of post. I hope it didn't come across that way. I'm suggesting that great teachers are rare for the same reason that great quarterbacks are rare or great authors are rare: it takes years to get there, tons of reflection and a wide skill set. I'm not there yet. I may never be. But I know it won't happen through snake oil solutions.

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    1. it does tend to come across that way but through no fault of your own....could we blame human nature?

      Anyway, it's a good list and one I could certainly aspire to and work towards. And that's the tricky bit - walking the walk, as I recently challenged myself with.

      another Padawan,
      Malyn

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    2. I think that every "great" educator's list would be similar and different alike - reflective of our innate sense of self. The greatness of the list is that you took the time to conscientiously think about it - and had the courage to post your thinking.

      Dare I suggest that you seem to be doing just fine on #10? Thanks for sharing.

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  11. I love this list and will certainly share with colleagues. Humility makes its way into many of your writings and with good reason. Nice work...

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  12. I like that your list includes so many varied aspects of great teaching - you include love and pedagogy and get that both are important and both are hard.

    I think true greatness in anything worth doing is going to be hard and take time to achieve. We need to accept that and not expect everyone fresh out of college to be great yet - teachers are as much on a learning journey as their students.

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    1. I'm with you. The hardest parts are often love and the pedagogy. It takes time to refine one's craft.

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  13. I think that your reflection on humility here is vitally important. To it, I'd add "a healthy dose of self-doubt." Am I a good teacher? Did that lesson *really* work? What do I need to change? These are all questions I've been asking myself for twenty years and I still don't know the answer to them, it seems. More often than not, I struggle to get up from under the coals heaped upon our profession. It's hard to get up and get in there and give your blood, sweat and tears when you turn on the radio or television, open a newspaper, or go online to read all about how your profession is an abject failure, not matter what you do. Humility and grace, and self-doubt. We tell kids not to call themselves "stupid," because some day, that will stick. Well, it's no different for teachers. If you keep hearing that you're a failure...

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    1. I'm with you. That self-doubt goes along with humility and grace. I don't want to get too spiritual here, but for me, the themes of humility and grace go a long way.

      I'm with you on the heaping coals. There is a devaluation of the profession. The only way to disprove it is by continuing to teach well.

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  14. Replies
    1. . . . and also with you

      #starwarscathedral

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  15. I meant: "May the Force be with US."

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  16. Sincere, insightful article! So many teachers are caught up in "teaching." Others are giving away grades out of pity or a need to be liked. Thank you for putting the "I feel bad for them so I will expect less" sentiment into words...it really hit home for me.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. The low expectation thing is hard, but I understand where it comes from. We weep for tragedy, but we can't let that become a reason that kids don't get a good education.

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  17. I'm going into my second year of teaching and I am still very much at the learning stage which is what drew me to your post/site. I think I will always be at the learning stage - it's part of what I learned already that being a good teacher is learning and growing with the students. I really enjoyed your article and I will share it with my colleagues as we all strive to be the best we can be!

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  18. I've been teaching high school English for 38 years, and what alarms me the most about the younger English teachers in my school is their lack of passion for the subject matter. And they wonder why they have discipline problems and apathy in their classrooms. Subject + Passion = Giving students what they deserve.

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  19. John, this is an excellent example of why visions, structures, and leadership can only go so far. The real work happens in the classroom, the hallways, empowering our students and it takes teachers like you that are passion-driven to shift for kids. Here's to a great year, and my own need to do a top 10 list before tomorrow has suddenly become crystal clear.

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  20. I have just retired after 40 years in teaching and the principalship. I still love the craft of teaching. I am doing the occasional relief teaching gig in schools. We are mid way through our school year in Australia so teachers are now struggling under the weight of expectations. I think this post is a fabulous way for teachers to reconnect with the craft of teaching. The beauty of this activity is not so much the list - but that it is YOUR list. We all need OUR own list to reconnect. Good stuff, John.

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  21. Is Yoda or Grand Master status unattainable then? :) Great list, John. Thank you!

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  22. Mr. Spencer,
    I'm starting to step in the teaching world and I know I have a tremendous amount of learning to do with the students. In your blog, which I truly enjoyed reading especially having that love for a student. I want to make a difference in every individual student’s life and watching them learn everyday just brings a smile to my face. Children do come from many different backgrounds and I'm sure it is unbearable to know you can’t help control what goes on outside of school; but to know that you can make a difference in their life would be an amazing feeling! As a student myself I have had a lump sum of many great teachers and I have also had the teachers that just are all the time miserable. Teaching should never be looked at as just a job or a career; it is an activity every day to help the children expand their knowledge in many different ways. I can't wait to make a difference in my student's life. Thank you for the eye opening blog, I really enjoyed reading and actually learning also.

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  27. Thanks for your list of 10. I have been teaching for 7 years and I am constantly working and reflecting on all 10. The one that really stood out to me is number 9.Feedback is such an important part of education, but seems to be forgotten by most teachers. Many teachers give back papers with a score but no indication of why the grade was given. Timing of feedback is also crucial to the learning process. Many teachers at my school have student work piled high on their desk from weeks back. It is understandable that grading papers for 210 middle school students can be time consuming on top of the already lengthy job of planning, parent phone calls, organizing, etc., however, timely feedback needs to be made more of a priority in education. I know that this is something that I strive for, but need to continue to work on. Thanks for your post and making me reflect on my own teaching practices!

    Amanda Flickinger

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  28. This list is inspirational. You could make a poster and every teacher would want one just as a reminder of all the good we do and should keep striving to do. Heck, I want to print it out. If I may be so bold, I want to add one, but maybe it isn't necessary. Maybe it's implied in all of your points, but I would add "Connectedness"--(is that a word?) A great teacher is connected to his/her students in that a great teacher can read their faces; they get it, they are confused, they are tired, they are hot, they are going through something unrelated to my class, they are about to throw up. I have known teachers who lack this one ability to read students' faces and adjust instruction or activities to meet whatever need prevails in the room and it's a disaster.

    ReplyDelete
  29. This is a fantastic list. You could make a poster and every teacher will want one as a reminder of all the good work we do and what we can do to be better! Maybe it's implied in #1 and #8, but I want to add "Connectedness" (is that even a word?!) A great teacher is connected to his/her students and can read their faces; they are getting it, they are lost, they are hot, they are tired, he is going to throw up, she is sad about something, she is distracted by something unrelated to class; he has to pee... I have known teachers with plenty of passion and knowledge who were great in so many ways, but lacked this ability to read the signs the students were giving in their faces and adjust. It's a silent message they send and a great teacher can read it and help often without skipping a beat.

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.