On the first day of the fall semester of my senior year in college, I attended two classes with two very different teachers. The first class was a music history class taught by a music history professor, the other was an American Novel class taught by a professor of literature.
Since it was the first day of class, the music teacher made a very brief introduction, took attendance, then sheepishly explained that since the textbooks for the course had not yet arrived at the bookstore, he was dismissing us. I left there surprised that a person with a terminal degree in his field, someone who presumably loved his area of expertise, could not extemporaneously share his passion for his subject with a captive audience. I dreaded the rest of the semester.
Later that same day, I went to the first meeting of my American Novel class. As the students were seated, the teacher entered the room, bringing with her a cool breeze of animation and excitement. Since it was the first day of the class, she passed out the course syllabus in order to give an outline of the expectations and the material we were to cover that semester. As she spoke, she was absolutely captivating and compelling. She managed complete engagement of her audience, and she was simply going over the syllabus. She took advantage of every moment of our time together. She engaged her students at a high level through her personal charisma and by making some attempt to connect with each student in the class. I looked forward to the rest of the semester, and I was not disappointed.
That day, I was able to verbalize what I had long believed about teaching: the teacher makes or breaks any class, regardless of the subject. Since then, that maxim has been proven true again and again as I have observed teachers in a variety of fields and settings. I have also striven to be one of those teachers who really makes a class meaningful for my students.
With the idea that the teacher is the single most important ingredient in any classroom, I believe that the qualities common to outstanding teachers include sufficient content knowledge, superior instructional strategies, a personal connection to their students, and charisma.
Outstanding teachers must have sufficient content knowledge to feel confident and comfortable with the material being taught. This allows the teacher to focus on the instructional strategies being employed and the specific needs of the students.
In order to ensure the strongest base of content knowledge, teachers should continue their own education by taking continuing education courses, seeking advanced degrees, and keeping up with current trends in their field. This constantly deepens their well of knowledge, allowing new ideas to continuously be imported into the classroom. It also models lifelong learning and the importance of education to students.
Outstanding teachers also employ superior instructional strategies to deliver that content to their students. They know how best to communicate material in a way that engages all students.
Successful teachers know what research says about the best practices and also have an intuitive sense of what works in the areas of student engagement, instruction, the effective use of time, the arrangement of the classroom, how to use a variety of assessments to monitor progress, and differentiation based on age, ability or learning style. Great teachers know what works.
Superior instructional strategies are a set of tools an educator can use to deliver content to students, and an educator must constantly acquire new tools and refine his or her practice over the course of a career.
Outstanding teachers make a personal connection with their students. Their students believe that their teacher cares about them personally. Their students believe that they can trust their teacher. The best teachers communicate high expectations to their students, and their students are inspired to do their very best in order to make their teacher proud.
Most people can remember a certain teacher from their grade school or high school years who played a pivotal role in their lives. Their favorite teacher was one who cared about them as individuals, took an interest in them, demanded the most from them, and are teachers from whom they learned the most about school and about life.
Finally, outstanding teachers have an undeniable personal charisma that is appealing to others. They have a certain dynamism, animation, or stage presence that is exciting to be around. They create environments that are interesting, engaging, and dynamic. It is impossible to get students excited about learning a concept when the teacher is not excited about teaching it.
I am reminded of a Japanese researcher who visited our school recently to make a presentation on permafrost, his area of expertise. I was not expecting much excitement from a presentation on permafrost, but the presenter’s passion for the subject was clearly communicated to his audience. He was enthusiastic about permafrost, and it was clear he knew quite a lot about it. He found ways to make permafrost relevant, interesting, and exciting. His presentation proved to me once again that the teacher makes or breaks any class, regardless of the subject.