What Makes A Good Teacher?
Marie F. Hassett, Ph.D.
Bricolage, Inc., Jamaica Plain, MA
I have been
teaching for the last ten years. During that time, I have workedin
public schools, universities, extracurricular programs for K-12,
adult basic literacy, and adult enrichment classes. My youngest
student was a 6 year-old budding actress in a town-sponsored arts
enrichment program for elementary students; my oldest, a Jamaican
immigrant, a grandmother beginning at the age of 63 to learn how
to read. I've taught honors students in a college humanities program,
and severely handicapped youth in a public high school.
The breadth of my experience has enriched my teaching life, but
left me without a luxury some of my colleagues enjoy-the sense,
as I walk into a new class, for a new term, that I know what my
students will need, and how best to share it with them. This is
not to say that I've been tossed blind into the classroom. In most
cases, I've had enough prep time to gather what seem like appropriate
materials, and find out something about the students I'll be working
with. What I have not had is the critical mass of sameness that
accrues to the teacher who stays in the same setting, at the same
level, for many years in a row. I cannot assume that what worked
last semester will work this time.
As a result of my ever-changing context, I've spent a lot of time
thinking about the craft and practice of teaching, as separate from
course content, age of students, size of class, or institutional
setting. Everywhere I go, I meet exemplary teachers, and I've been
interested in figuring out what makes them so good. What I've discovered
is the inherent sameness of good teachers, regardless of the substantial
differences between them in terms of style, personality, goals,
and pattern of interaction with students. I would go so far as to
say that good teachers, in all settings and at all levels, have
more in common with each other than any of them may have with their
colleagues in comparable positions.
In order to understand the bold statement above, try the following
exercise. Sit back, close your eyes, and bring to mind the three
best teachers you ever had. Try to remember what they were like-how
they looked, talked and acted, what their classrooms and/or offices
were like, how they made you feel as their student. When you're
satisfied that you've gotten a good picture of who these people
were, open your eyes, and consider the words of educator and philosopher
Good teaching isn't about technique. I've asked students
around the country to describe their good teachers to me. Some
of them describe people who lecture all the time, some of them
describe people who do little other than facilitate group process,
and others describe everything in between. But all of them describe
people who have some sort of connective capacity, who connect
themselves to their students, their students to each other, and
everyone to the subject being studied. (1999, p. 27)
Do you recognize your best teachers in this description? When we
talk about the quality of someone's teaching, we address issues
of technique, content, and presentation. But we all know people
who have tremendous knowledge but fail to communicate it: people
who have, on paper, a great lesson, but whose students are bored
or frustrated. When we're being honest, we admit that good teaching
often has less to do with our knowledge and skills than with our
attitude towards our students, our subject, and our work.
The rest of this article will address some of the characteristics
that good teachers exhibit. It is not meant to be all encompassing
or definitive; many excellent teachers may possess only some of
these traits, and consider others not mentioned to be just as valuable.
The characteristics detailed here may be viewed simply as a selection
of tools that allow teachers to create and sustain connectivity
in their classrooms.
have a sense of purpose;
have expectations of success for all students;
demonstrate a willingness to adapt and change to meet
are comfortable with not knowing;
reflect on their work;
learn from a variety of models;
enjoy their work and their students.
Good teachers have
a sense of purpose.
You can't be good in a generic sense; you have to be good for something.
As a teacher, this means that you know what your students expect,
and you make plans to meet those expectations. You, too, have expectations
about what happens in your classroom, based on the goals you're
trying to achieve. If you want to prepare your students for employment,
you expect punctuality and good attendance. If you teach a GED class,
you spend time explaining the format of the test and helping students
to improve their test-taking skills. And if you want your students
to become better, more involved readers, you allow time for reading
and provide access to books.
Good teachers have
expectations of success for all students.
This is the great paradox of teaching. If we base our self-evaluation
purely on the success of our students, we'll be disappointed. At
all levels, but especially in adult education, there are simply
too many factors in students'lives for a teacher to be able to guarantee
success to all. At the same time, if we give up on our students,
adopting a fatalistic, "it's out of my hands" attitude, students
will sense our lack of commitment and tune out. The happy medium
can be achieved with a simple question: Did I do everything that
I could in this class, this time, to meet the needs of all my students,
assuming that complete success was possible? As long as you can
answer in the affirmative, you're creating a climate for success.
Good teachers know
how to live with ambiguity.
One of the greatest challenges of teaching stems from the lack of
immediate, accurate feedback. The student who walks out of your
classroom tonight shaking his head and muttering under his breath
about algebra may burst into class tomorrow proclaiming his triumph
over math, and thanking you for the previous lesson. There is no
way to predict precisely what the long-term results of our work
will be. But if we have a sense of purpose informing our choice
of strategies and materials, and we try to cultivate expectations
of success for all our students, we will be less likely to dwell
on that unpredictability, choosing instead to focus on what we can
control, and trusting that thoughtful preparation makes good outcomes
more likely than bad ones.
Good teachers adapt
and change to meet student needs.
Can we really claim to have taught a class in geography if no one
learned any of the concepts in the lesson from our presentation?
If none of our students ever pick up a book outside of the classroom,
have we really taught them to be better readers? We don't always
think about these issues, but they are at the heart of effective
teaching. A great lesson plan and a great lesson are two entirely
different things; it's nice when one follows the other, but we all
know that it doesn't always work out that way. We teach so that
students will learn, and when learning doesn't happen, we need to
be willing to devise new strategies, think in new ways, and generally
do anything possible to revive the learning process. It's wonderful
to have a good methodology, but it's better to have students engaged
in good learning.
Good teachers are
This may be the only infallible, absolute characteristic of all
good teachers, because without it, none of the other traits we've
discussed can fully mature. Good teachers routinely think about
and reflect on their classes, their students, their methods, and
their materials. They compare and contrast, draw parallels and distinctions,
review, remove and restore. Failing to observe what happens in our
classes on a daily basis disconnects us from the teaching and learning
process, because it's impossible to create connectivity if you've
Good teachers are
comfortable with not knowing.
If we reflect honestly and thoughtfully on what happens in our classes,
we will often find dilemmas we cannot immediately resolve, questions
we cannot answer. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
suggests that his correspondent, "try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign
. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far
in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live
your way into the answer" (1986, pp. 34-35). In the same way, our
teaching benefits if we can live for a little while with a question,
think and observe, and let an answer develop in response to the
specific situation we face.
Good teachers had
good role models.
Think back again to your three best teachers. How has your own teaching
been shaped by their practices, consciously or unconsciously? Think
also of the worst teacher you ever had. Are there things you absolutely
will not do because you remember how devastating they were to you
or your classmates? We learn to teach gradually, and absorb ideas
and practices from a variety of sources. How many movies have you
seen that include a teacher as a character, and how might those
films have contributed to your practice? We are not always aware
of the influences on our teaching, good and bad; reflecting on the
different models of teaching we've acquired, and looking at how
we acquired them, makes us better able to adapt and change to suit
Good teachers enjoy
their work and their students.
This may seem obvious, but it's easy to lose sight of its importance.
Teachers who enjoy their work and their students are motivated,
energized, and creative. The opposite of enjoyment is burnout-the
state where no one and nothing can spark any interest. Notice, too,
that enjoying your work and enjoying your students may be two different
things. Focusing too much on content may make students feel extraneous,
misunderstood, or left out. Focusing exclusively on students, without
an eye to content, may make students feel understood and appreciated,
but may not help them to achieve their educational goals as quickly
as they'd like. Achieving a balance between the two extremes takes
time and attention; it demands that we observe closely, evaluate
carefully, and act on our findings.
I would like to conclude with a poem by Lao-Tzu, the Chinese scholar
to whom the Tao Te Ching is attributed. I have carried a copy of
this poem with me for many years, and I find its message both helpful
and challenging. It reminds us that good teaching is not a static
state, but a constant process. We have new opportunities to become
better teachers every day; good teachers are the ones who seize
more opportunities than they miss.
Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
Simple in actions and thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
You reconcile all being in the world. (1989, 17)
Mitchell, Stephen, ed. (1989). The Enlightened Heart. NY: Harper
_____, trans. (1986). Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke.
NY: Vintage Books.
Palmer, Parker. (1999). "The Grace of Great Things: Reclaiming the
Sacred in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning." In The Heart of Knowing:
Spirituality in Education. Ed. Stephen Glazer. NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 12 (Winter 2000),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 2000.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.