A great teacher is one a student cherishes forever. Teachers have a longlasting impact on the lives of their students, and the best students inspire their teachers, too. Years ago, as a young, eager student, I would have told you that a great teacher was someone who provided classroom entertainment and focused very little on discipline and assignments. Now, after working for 35 years in education including 26 years of heading institutions and related administrative experience and having been involved in hundreds of teacher evaluations, my perspective has changed. My current position as a professor of higher education gives me the opportunity to share what I have learnt with current and future college faculty administrators and through friendly banter with my postgraduate students about what it means to be a great teacher.
Attitude is key
Teaching is hard work, and great teachers work tirelessly to create a challenging and nurturing environment for their students. Great teaching seems to have less to do with our knowledge and skills than with our attitude towards our students or our subject. Greatness in teaching is just as rare as greatness in medicine, dance, law or any other profession. Although the qualities that make great teachers are not easy to inculcate or duplicate, understanding these qualities can give all teachers a standard of excellence to strive for and guide higher education institutions in their efforts to recruit and retain the best teachers.
To that end, I offer the following observations about the key characteristics of great teachers. This list is certainly not exhaustive, and the characteristics do not appear in any particular order of importance but are based on the singular premise that for a teacher to be called great, the students must also aspire to be great.
Respect: In a great teacher’s classroom, each person’s ideas and opinions are valued. It takes a lot of confidence for students to feel safe to express their feelings and learn to respect and listen to others. This facilitates a welcoming learning environment for all students. Facilitating questions is mandatory.
A sense of belonging: The mutual respect in a classroom provides a supportive, collaborative environment. In this way there is an acceptance of a certain structure where there are rules to follow and assignments to be done, and each student is aware that he or she is an important, integral part of the group.
Good students know that they can depend not only on the teacher but also on the entire class. Presentations, assignments and project deadlines are welcomed.
Accessibility and Care: Teachers who are approachable, not only for students but for everyone on campus, can find solutions to any problems or concerns. Great teachers who possess good listening skills ensure that every student leaves his personal baggage outside the school doors. The problems of the young must be handled flexibly.
Shared expectations: Students generally give teachers as much or as little as is expected of them. Teachers realise that their expectations of their students greatly affect their achievement. Variations in grades serve as positive reinforcements.
Love of learning: Great teachers inspire students with their passion for education and constantly renew themselves as professionals in their quest to provide students with the highest quality of education possible. As a result, the student has no fear of learning new approaches or incorporating new technologies into presentations. Customised guidance is useful.
Skilled leadership: Effective teachers focus on shared decisionmaking and teamwork, as well as on community building. As a result, students take up opportunities to assume leadership roles. Nominations, posts, responsibility and accountability are cherished.
Creativity and Innovation: Brilliant students find new ways to make presentations to make sure that every other student understands the key concepts. The teacher also responds with concerted guidance. Shifting gears is the order of the day.
Collaboration: Rather than thinking of themselves as weak because they seek help, great students view collaboration as a way to learn from a fellow professional. A great teacher uses constructive criticism and advice as an opportunity to grow as an educator. Age, experience and seniority cannot be imposed.
Professionalism: Good students emulate teachers in different ways from personal appearance to organisational skills and preparedness for each day besides exemplary communication skills. The respect that the great teacher receives because of her professional manner is obvious to those around her. Role modelling is a creative way of teaching.
While teaching is a gift that seems to come quite naturally to some, others have to work overtime to achieve the great-teacher status. Yet, the payoff is enormous for both you and your students. Imagine students thinking of you as that great teacher they had in college! No one can produce a complete and definitive list of the characteristics of great classroom teaching but I hope that this list provides a starting place.
Knowing the qualities of greatness can help teachers strive for the highest standards and help educationists, professors, teachers, and administrators jointly craft preservice training or in-service programmes that build on these qualities.