Know Any Great Teachers?

As parents have recently been required to become pseudo-teachers, I expect that their appreciation for the jobs that great teachers do every day has grown just a bit over the last few weeks. 

During the 36 years I was actively engaged in the leadership of teaching and learning, I kept a running list of great teachers in my head – about ten of them. The list changed as I worked with more and more teachers over the years, but I always kept it around ten.  I have also spent some time thinking about what makes a great teacher great at every level of education.

Love all their students. Smart students. Not so smart students. College-bound students. Students who get their hands dirty laying bricks. Pretty students. Ugly students. Smelly students. Cologne students. 

Can teach all students. A great teacher is like a great coach (actually they are the same thing). They get stuff out of students that the students have NO IDEA they can accomplish. And, usually, they work the students’ asses off in the process. 

Don’t teach subjects. They teach students. Big difference. The best math teachers (and there are several on my list) actually love students more than they do math! Now, that is a bit of a conundrum, especially in high school, but it can be done.

Know their stuff. If they did not learn what they are going to teach tomorrow’s class when they were in college, they learned it at the kitchen table last night. Regardless, when they stand in front of their students tomorrow, they are experts.

Are tough. Students like tough. No player has ever gone back to a coach once graduated and said, “Geez Coach, we did practice too hard or win many games, but, man, we had a great time.” HELL NO! They go back to that English teacher who gave them fits, and they say, “Ms. P, I did not realize back then why you were so hard, but I do now, and I just want to say, ‘Thank you.'” 

See into the future. Really, they do. Great teachers see in four-year segments. They see what that Kindergartner will be able to do in the fourth grade, and they teach to that vision—every day. That six-grade teacher sees what will be required in the ninth grade and he prepares his students for success.

Trust and talk to their colleagues. Great teachers don’t hope this year’s students are prepared, they talk to last year’s teacher and make sure that teacher knows precisely what is going to be required this year.  It doesn’ happen a lot, but the great ones do it religiously. 

Come to class prepared. Great teachers know how and why and when they will teach a particular piece of knowledge and how that segment will be built on by the next segment. They use a blueprint to build a little house of knowledge. Some days it is just wall. Other days it is a roof—you can do a lot when the roof is on! Like roofing in the hot sun, some days are just downright challenging to the students. But like a roofer who needs the shingles when she needs them not ten minutes from now and the right kind of nail gun. Great teachers give students the right tools right when they need them. 

Never give busywork. Great teachers have too much for their students to accomplish to morally give in busywork. Never. 

They always make connections to the real world. When a kid asks, “Ms. N, why do we have to learn this stuff,” Mrs. N will tell them and with an example that connects “this stuff” to the world they are in or about to enter.  

Begin class when the bell rings. Right then. Not a minute wasted. And they rarely have discipline problems because their students understand this key expectation for learning and live up to it. 

Have very few classroom rules. They may not even have them posted. But the students know them. They don’t have rowdy classes. They have three or four rules that cover everything, and because the students know those rules, and understand them, and because the students also see the previous eleven things about their teacher demonstrated every day, they behave. Not all the time. They are students after all! 

I bet you can remember a great teacher. If he or she is or they are still around, send them a note. If not, send a prayer of thanks to the Almighty. 


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