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.