What makes a highly effective teacher? What is the most important quality a teacher should have? And who is an ideal teacher? The very best teachers, those who make education a rewarding, enriching, and even inspiring experience, do have certain qualities that set them apart from the average individual. Teaching isn’t for everybody. It takes courage, compassion, and a ton of patience. You need certain qualities to survive life in the classroom, let alone excel. Lucky for you, we’ve compiled the realistic qualities that we think make outstanding teachers.
We’re not here to patronize you. We know that teaching isn’t a fairytale. Between federal mandates and helicopter parents, state testing policies and contract disputes, there’s more to teaching than just, well…teaching. But the rewards of a career in education can also be profound. You get to shape young hearts and minds, instill your students with a love of learning, and bring illumination to the next generation of leaders.
Just know that it takes a special kind of person to handle this awesome responsibility. If you’re interested in learning more about a career in education, find out what you can do with an education degree.
Otherwise, read on for these 10 Realistic Qualities of Outstanding Teachers:
Have patience. Seriously, like the patience of a saint or one of those British castle guards who is forbidden from speaking, moving, or blinking for hours at a time. If you are quick to anger, short of fuse, or can’t handle the suspense of waiting for the spin cycle on your washing machine to end, you may not have the best disposition to be a teacher. Patience is critical not just as you demonstrate a willingness to work with students at their own pace but as you attempt to navigate that tangled web of bureaucratic demands from above.
Find your zen. Practice the art of inconspicuous meditation. Take deep breaths when you need to. You might even keep one of those rage-reducing stress balls close at hand. Before you grind the crowns off your teeth in frustration, remember that the tenor of your classroom will reflect your demeanor. Be cool and they’ll be cool.
But, don’t be so cool that the students just think of you as a buddy. If they smell blood, the sharks will circle. Most of your students are awesome but there are a few in every bunch that will mistake your kindness for weakness. Finding a balance between likable and respectable is critical if you want to keep your students punctual, honest, and hard-working. Let them know that you appreciate and respect effort and make positive examples of your students by directing praise at those who demonstrate this virtue.
Your authority should also extend to your knowledge as an educator. Be versed and authoritative in the subjects on which you teach and on the subject of teaching in general. Achieving a deeper level of knowledge and understanding will allow you to go off-script once in awhile, to impart wisdom, share an appropriate anecdote, or offer a suggestion borne of life experience. Demonstrate through your own body of knowledge that education is empowering.
Laugh with your students whenever possible, laugh with your colleagues after the bell rings, and laugh to yourself at the experiences that are simply too ludicrous to otherwise process. Obviously, not everybody is handy with a punchline. We can’t all be Don Rickles. In fact, definitely don’t be Don Rickles. Don’t watch his routines on YouTube, reference them in class, and say we told you to do it. That’s not what we’re saying
Still, if you can lighten the mood during state testing by riffing a few tasteful proctoring one-liners, it could make the whole thing a better experience for everybody.
But seriously, try to incorporate fun games and activities into your lesson plans that require participation and carry the explicit understanding that we’re laughing with—and not at—each other. Your students may not remember the finer details of a book report on Ethan Frome (talk about a barrel of laughs), but they’ll remember the improvised student reenactment that reduced your entire classroom to hysterics. And if you can find the humor in Ethan Frome, you can laugh at pretty much anything.
Don’t be stingy with the feelings. Be emotionally available to your students and colleagues. Don’t coddle your students, but show a willingness to reach out to those in need of support, to those in need of advocacy, to those just in need of a kind word. Show compassion to those who struggle academically or socially and to those who succeed and deserve your praise.
And remember that you have colleagues who experience the same triumphs and frustrations that you do. Reach out when you feel their distress and lean on those you trust and admire when you find yourself in need.
Don’t let your occasional disappointment temper your desire to be a sympathetic ear, an empathetic mentor, and a sensitive classroom leader. Sometimes, the peripheral tribulations of working in our imperfect educational system can harden you against the things that inspired you back when you were a bright-eyed education major. Resist this effect and find your intrinsic motivation in your students and colleagues.
Of course, we’re referring to intellectual flexibility. But it doesn’t hurt to be limber either. A big part of being an educator is rolling with the punches…and there will be punches, of that you can be sure. Remain open-minded and adaptable. Teachers are bombarded with curricular requirements, testing standards, and evaluative metrics. Find ways of integrating these demands into your educational philosophy rather allowing them to replace it.
And remember that each one of your students is unique, which means that at any point, any one of them could catch you completely off guard, whether it’s with a thought-provoking question, a challenging learning barrier, or a brilliant accomplishment. Be prepared to handle your "teachable moments" with style.
Speaking of style, always remember that you have ideas and talents that made you want to teach in the first place. Aspire to move your students, to make an impact, to leave a lasting impression. Be creative. If you stretch the limits of imagination in your approach, your students will be inspired to do the same in their work.
Treat the classroom as an opportunity to showcase the gifts that made you want to teach. You are both a teacher and an education professional, which means that you are in a constant state of intellectual stimulation. Run with it. The classroom is your forum to be brilliant.
When it comes to your students, always remember that they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. Oh…wait. That’s bears. Obviously, being a teacher means having no fear. You already know that. You have to have some pretty serious brass to get up there and teach in the first place.
But it also helps to be bold in your approach. Take risks in your teaching style. Again, not Don Rickles-type risks. Fun, appropriate, and administratively-approved risks. Unconventional assignments, free-form classroom discussions, group activities. These experiences can be a lot more educationally indelible than a few hours of text-book cramming. Don’t be afraid to be different. Your students will thank you for it.
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We can’t stress enough how frequently students equate school and boredom. Be the antidote to this association. Keep it lively, keep it unpredictable, find ways to help students associate lessons with personal experiences. Draw real-world events and examples into the classroom regardless of subject matter.
If you teach history, draw parallels to today’s headlines. If it’s English, create opportunities for students to read self-selected material. If you’re a math teacher, I honestly don’t know. I was always much more of a History/English student. But you’ll figure it out. You’re a teacher. That’s what you do. Bring fresh perspective to your subject matter. Your students can get the boring version from the internet.
Show some life up there. It really makes a difference for your students.
Engage your class, provide occasional activities that encourage movement to the extent that the environment allows. Be sure to provide alternative ways of participating in these activities for any students who might be disabled. Create an atmosphere that breaks your students out of the educational monotony that defines much of their day.
Geek out about your subject. Don’t be afraid to show passion…within reason of course. You don’t want to be the weird teacher that all the students secretly suspect of intravenous Red Bull abuse. But show your students how enriching the knowledge has been for you and how much personal satisfaction they can derive from a life in pursuit of the same.
As a teacher, your convictions will be occasionally challenged, your patience will be often tested, and you yourself will be constantly evaluated. It can all be enough to make you lose sight of how excellent you are as an educator.
Remain confident in who you are and why you got into this business. Be firm when your convictions are challenged but show a willingness to learn more, to become better, to evolve in your role. Recognize that your ability to learn and change is a sign of strength.
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And remember that, come what may, you teach because you have the ability to change lives every day, to inspire your students to greater heights of excellence, and to leave a positive and lasting impact on the world around you.
Again, we’re not here to patronize you. You probably get enough of that from administrators. Still, we truly do appreciate you, and not just during that one week in May when we’re supposed to express our Teacher Appreciation, but always. Thank you, teachers, for all that you do, all that you tolerate, and all that you inspire.
Curious to learn more about your options with a degree in education? Check out these top Education Careers.