What Makes a Great Teacher

One of my beloved mentors, my high school math teacher, gifted me with his best piece of advice when I set out into the world of teaching. “Always remember that you are not teaching subjects, but people.”

Teachers are not only the people who manage school classrooms. Almost everyone is a teacher. Parents teach their children. Employees teach newcomers the ropes. Friends show other friends how to knit, clean a gun, or balance their checkbooks. It is important for all of us to learn how to be good teachers.

First, be a good learner. Keep your eyes and ears open for new approaches and new information. Receive feedback graciously. You are not obligated to follow the suggestions of others unless they are signing your pay check, but it always pays to examine input and see whether it contains something you can use.

Whenever possible, wait until the person is ready to learn. With children, this may be developmental issue. There is an optimal time for children to learn how to tie their shoes, how to catch a ball, how to read, how to work without supervision. Trying to push them to perform ahead of their developmental schedule will only frustrate both of you.

The best time to teach something is in response to a question or request. Find out whether your prospective pupil is looking for a quick five-minute lesson or explanation, or whether they are in for the long haul. Offer an estimate of how much time and effort will be needed to learn something. If you think you can help with this learning project, and want to do it, make an informal learning contract, and follow through. If you don’t want to make the investment of time and energy, or lack the appropriate skills, refer the person to someone else if you can. The gift of encouragement is just as valuable as the gift of teaching.

The most important things are taught by example and attitude. Whether you are a university professor, a parent of growing children, or a soccer coach, model the behavior that you expect from your pupils. Make your expectations clear, and follow through. Always treat your pupils with respect, and let them experience the consequences of their choices as directly as if safe and practical. Any kind of learning is hard work, but the results are worth it!