By Elizabeth Exline
“The best teacher people say they ever had and their favorite teacher are not necessarily the same person. And that’s because, as an adult, you look back and you’re like, ‘What did I really learn?’”
This observation is from Pamela Roggeman, EdD, the dean of the College of Education at University of Phoenix (UOPX). Roggeman has spent her career in education, so she speaks from both personal and professional experience when she identifies this discrepancy.
While it might be tempting to seek to become someone’s favorite teacher, most see the value in being the best. Or the most effective. And that raises the question: Just what exactly are the qualities of a good teacher?
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The answer, like teaching itself, is complicated and multifaceted. It involves more than implementing the right educational learning theories. Even getting a master’s in education doesn’t guarantee that someone will have the characteristics of a good teacher.
In fact, according to “A Review of the Literature on Teacher Effectiveness and Student Outcomes,” which was published in 2019 as part of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, even teacher experience and education can’t be directly tied to positive student outcomes.
Roggeman, however, has seen firsthand what works. Citing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, she points out that teachers must create an emotionally and physically safe environment for students before students can learn.
“If a kid is feeling vulnerable in any way, shape or form, whether it be socially or academically … the kid will not be able to settle down and learn,” Roggeman says.
Creating a predictable environment for students is a necessary first step in that direction, Roggeman says, which ties into the teacher skills taught in UOPX’s online teaching degree program and elsewhere. Beyond that, there’s a host of soft skills Roggeman and others have identified as being integral to student success. Here is the shortlist for what makes a good teacher.
Considering that a teacher’s job essentially boils down to sharing information, it’s not surprising that good communication tops the list of important teacher skills.
Depending on who you ask, this quality might go by a different name, like setting clear objectives or showing respect. But, at the end of the day, all of those practices depend on strong communication skills.
So, what does good communication entail exactly? It involves:
Jacquelyn Kelly, PhD, the associate dean of the College of General Studies at University of Phoenix, explains this concept of clear language within the context of turning theory into practice.
“Students need to feel that they belong in the class in order to be successful,” she says. “This is coming from a theory called academic self-concept, which we know is a leading predictor of student success in all disciplines. … Well, what does that mean? One strategy that might be used is language that sounds comfortable for students. Let’s not use highly technical language and highly academic formal language. Let’s try to use very comfortable social language.”
Communication, in other words, is a pivotal social skill whose importance was underscored during the virtual learning experiment precipitated by the pandemic. Roggeman points out that children are social learners, and positive, healthy social settings depend on good communication. (Of course, proven online teaching strategies help in virtual learning formats too!)
Optimizing productivity in the classroom depends on creating plenty of time to study course content. Yes, this seems obvious. But consider your own experience at work. When interruptions eat into the day, it’s harder and harder to concentrate on the tasks at hand.
The same holds true for the classroom, where student interruptions (like messages at work) or even scheduled classroom management policies (like meetings at work) can wreak havoc on creating chunks of time for students to focus on a lesson.
As noted in “A Review of the Literature on Teacher Effectiveness and Student Outcomes,” there’s a “consistent relationship between student achievement and teacher behaviors (instructional time and instructional content). … The importance of instructional content has been recognized by national policymakers and has helped motivate standards-based reform.”
Building in time for learning opportunities relies on both organization and preparation, which are two related qualities of a good teacher.
One reason why Roggeman highlighted the importance of creating a safe learning environment is that learning requires students to step into unfamiliar intellectual territory.
“They have to take risks in front of others,” Roggeman points out. “Even with themselves, they have to battle cognitive dissonance: I’ve always thought this way. Now I have to think that way. Those things [create] inner turmoil.”
As a result, teachers rely heavily on empathy to help students navigate this experience. Teachers need to push at the right times and pull back at others, all while fostering a sense of community within the classroom.
There’s an adage that says elementary teachers enter the field because they love to teach while secondary teachers enter the field because they love their area of expertise. Whether that’s true is probably relative, but it touches on one characteristic Roggeman views as essential for being a good teacher: You have to enjoy the age of the kids you’re teaching.
“It ought to be fun to you,” she says. “Just because teaching is important work doesn’t mean that it needs to be heavy all the time. When it stops being fun, that’s when you need to tackle the richer job of figuring out what’s going on there.”
Another way to put it? Teaching is a labor of love.
“A lot of times [the intrinsic reward of teaching] is all you’re going to get,” Roggeman says. “You don’t often get recognition from anywhere external like your leaders. … It’s not like you’re going to be getting a lot of rewards, and you’re usually not going to get a bonus. Not that education should be this way, but most educators know what they are taking on and are doing it for the intrinsic reward.”
Luckily for teachers, those rewards are everywhere in the classroom. For example, a “reward” might be getting a student to understand a concept after trying multiple methods over days or weeks. It might just be a hug from a kindergartner. Whatever form it takes, the teacher-student connection motivates all great teachers.
“You’ll get it every day if you look for it, but you really have to stay connected to that [as what] really drives you and gets you excited,” Roggeman says.
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“You have to have a serious dedication and desire for continuous growth and improvement,” Roggeman says. “And this is not necessarily the kind of growth or professional development you’re going to get from your school district. What I’m talking about here is you need to want to be better every single day.”
While teachers may trade in learning, it’s not a given that opportunities to learn and grow will fall into their laps. As with any profession, it’s easy to slip into a routine and gradually forget to cultivate your own growth.
What makes a good teacher stand apart, on the other hand, is seeking out those opportunities to learn. Roggeman, for example, changed her classes every year so that she never taught the same thing twice.
Teachers today might seek out like-minded groups on Facebook or Pinterest.
“If you don’t grow in the job,” Roggeman warns, “you will stagnate and burn out.”
One perhaps unintended benefit of seeking out those learning opportunities is that they bring you into contact with people who share your interests. And that, Roggeman says, can help combat some of the isolation of teaching.
“Teachers who go the distance find their ‘crew,’” Roggeman observes. “Most of the time this group consists of fellow teachers within their schools, but it may also be through their professional association memberships or even in online groups. … The isolation that teachers feel from other adults needs to be combatted by the realization that like-minded colleagues exist — even if it’s not in your same building.”
Connecting with colleagues helps inspire teachers, whether that’s in person while sponsoring school groups as Roggeman did, or online in special interest groups on social media.
There’s plenty of debate about whether experience makes a good teacher, but the better question may be whether adaptability plays a factor in student success.
Certainly, intuition would suggest that it does. And Roggeman’s experience bears this out. She recalls seeing young teachers arrive in the classroom through an organization that recruited high-achieving college graduate students to serve as teachers in underserved communities.
Those teachers, Roggeman recalls, had a hard time relating to their students. “They would sometimes struggle when they would go into schools because their life experiences were so different from those of the students they taught,” she explains.
On the flip side, Roggeman recalls a former student who was a Navy SEAL veteran who decided to pursue a career in teaching after retiring from the military. He, too, had a hard time managing his class. (His military experience meant he expected orders to be followed without question.) But after he learned classroom management strategies, he was able to adapt.
Roggeman explains: “He was actually easier to work with, because I’d be like, ‘OK, well this is what you need to do. You need to be consistent. You need to establish rules. You need to have consequences.’
“He understood those things in a way that some of his colleagues did not. Understanding the development stage students were in, he was able to discern when it was appropriate for his students to give input and when they did not. Some of his younger, less experienced colleagues could not make that distinction.
“And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you absolutely want to give your kids input into their class. But first you need to establish expectations.’”
Knowing how to play to one’s audience is critical in many professions. For teachers, it’s doubly challenging, because the kids in a classroom aren’t the only ones who are going to offer feedback. They talk to their friends and their parents; parents talk to each other and to administrators.
The result can be an avalanche of commentary and input that’s sometimes based on comments or lessons taken out of context.
“You will get feedback all of the time,” Roggeman says. “You have to be able to handle it, put it in perspective and learn what is valuable feedback and what isn’t.”
The best professional development Roggeman ever had was carpooling with her department head during the first three years of her teaching career. It wasn’t a formal mentorship, but the relationship allowed her to understand the nuances of her profession and brainstorm ideas with an experienced, talented educator.
“It’s imperative that teachers have a respected person in the profession that they can connect with, look up to and trust,” she says.
Like any public speaker, teachers understand that things can turn on a dime in the classroom. Even the best-laid lesson plans can suddenly prove insufficient — and kids won’t be bored, Roggeman warns.
That means it’s up to teachers to know how to not only break through to kids but fill the time with meaningful lessons.
“I think this is why a lot of other professions like to hire teachers,” Roggeman adds. Teachers know how to think on their feet.
While an elementary school teacher and a college instructor will have very different objectives for their students, the qualities of a good teacher hold across the board.
After all, a fifth grade teacher may seek to instill in her students an ability to be responsible for their own work, while a high school teacher may hope to inspire life skills like punctuality and planning ahead.
Both, however, will rely on communication to do that. Both teachers will need to create a safe learning space. And both teachers will fail at some point, only to reevaluate what they’re doing well and what needs to change.
Those are the hallmarks of what makes a good teacher after all.
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