Over an education career that has spanned twenty years, I have had the good fortune to work, and learn, from many exceptional educators. Currently, I am blessed to be the principal at a school with amazing and dedicated teachers — people who really care about our kids.
There is no shortage of advice about skills possessed by good teachers, but in my opinion, many of these are essential requirements of being an effective educator — believe that all kids can learn, have high expectations, model positive interactions, build positive relationships, etc. In this post, I will focus on what I believe moves a teacher from “good to great” (to borrow a phrase from Jim Collins). This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just a few ideas.
- Meet kids where they are. As educators, we don’t get to pick the students who walk into our schools, or classrooms. They arrive with different personalities, different cultures, different life experiences, different academic abilities, and various amounts of “baggage.” We can wish, or make the false assumption, that a class of kids are essentially the same, but that would be a significant mistake and a disservice to the students. Great educators take the time to get to know their kids and meet them where they are — providing the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional supports necessary for each child to succeed. That is every bit as difficult as it sounds.
- Toe the line. We all know that positive relationships are a requirement of an effective classroom and essential to student learning. Kids are very reluctant learners unless they feel valued and respected. Great educators walk a very challenging line of balancing expectations with empathy. They understand that they must hold their students to high academic and behavioral standards, but that they must also provide a high level of support and demonstrate an understanding of individual circumstances. Sometimes it is a razor-thin margin, but great teachers make it happen.
- Swallow their pride. Students misbehave. Parents send nasty emails. Administrators ask teachers to jump through hoops. Any of those things can be enough to send someone over the edge. Great teachers “pick their battles” and keep moving forward. Sometimes this means swallowing their pride and giving up on the need to “be right” (even when they are). This characteristic often presents itself in the form of an appropriate filter. I may feel it. I may think. But, if it isn’t helpful, I’m not going to say it.
- Allow each day to be a new day. We have all experienced one of “those” days. The lesson bombed. The kids were bouncing off the walls. That one student was pushing buttons. Great teachers have wonderful memories but are adept at forgetting what happened “yesterday” and allowing each day to be a fresh start. They show grace to kids who misbehave and they give themselves permission to have had a rough day. That was yesterday. Today is a new day.
- Keep getting better. Society changes. Technology changes. Our kids change. School should change. Great teachers never “arrive” — they keep pursuing effective education as a moving target. They read. They collaborate. They continue to learn. They are always looking for positive ways to address challenges, and meet the needs of students, wherever they are.
- Remain vigilant against biases. We all have them. Preconceptions. Misconceptions. Preferences. Biases. Great teachers process and reflect on what happens in the classroom and demonstrate a determination to prevent biases from negatively impacting students. They don’t assume their way is always the right way. This is hard work because many of the “norms” of school were established (years ago) for a very specific subset of our population. Some were even put in place to exclude. As educators, we must be committed to knocking down barriers, doing things differently, and ensuring our actions are not biased.
- Plan. This sounds so obvious, but planning is a critical component of effective teaching. Great teachers take the time to plan lessons that include student voice, account for diversity in the classroom, and demonstrate the meaning and relevance of the content. They are ready for any number of contingencies — be it academic, or behavioral. Great teachers understand that they must connect the curriculum to the lives of students.
- Remain the adult. As previously stated, students misbehave. Kids push buttons. They argue. Sometimes they are disrespectful. Great teachers do not take a student’s (or even a parent’s) poor behavior personally. They remain the adult and search for root causes of the behavior — understanding that a kid’s inappropriate actions are very rarely about them. Sometimes this requires a pause, a few deep breathes, or even a time out.
- Take on the things that aren’t their responsibility. Teachers do this all the time. Our society asks so much of our educators. It isn’t necessarily fair, but it is the reality. Great teachers recognize and meet the needs of their students — even when it goes well beyond their duties as assigned. They remain aware of social-emotional health. They keep an eye out for physical needs (food, clothing, school supplies). They do whatever it takes to help their students be successful in the classroom and beyond.
- Be that “one person.” Many of our students come to school each day, searching for acknowledgment that they are enough — that they are sufficient in spite of their flaws. Great teachers are cognizant of this and seek out ways, daily, to affirm the worth of their kids and let students know that they matter. They recognize that, in the words of the late Rita Pearson, “Every child needs a champion.” Great teachers go out of their way to be a champion, a vocal advocate, for every one of their kids.
A few of these ideas have come from my personal experience in the classroom, but the vast majority I have picked up from the exceptional teachers with whom I have worked. I know that if I was to return to the classroom I would be an exponentially better teacher because of what I have learned from others. Great teachers definitely deserve our respect, admiration, and accolades. They certainly have mine.
As I mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list. I would love to hear your ideas on what moves a teacher from “good to great.” Feel free to share in the comments. Thanks for reading.