Teachers change lives – but what makes a great teacher?
Exceptional teachers can leave a lasting impression on more than just their learners.
Excellent teachers can change our lives. Researchers have shown that good teachers encourage us to think critically, reflect and learn across disciplines. These are all skills that can set us up for life.
I have had the privilege of being taught by a few brilliant teachers in my life, and I have also observed teaching excellence at the numerous schools I have visited over the years as an education academic. Those who stand out are devoted, imaginative, motivated and motivating, and eager to overcome challenging conditions to make a positive difference in the lives of young people.
Teachers are expected to teach, but great teachers also have a wealth of knowledge and experience and are eager to learn from their learners. They bring their cultural capital – what they have learned and experienced – to engagements with learners, colleagues and the community. In turn, they are altered by their connections with others and can positively affect those with whom they engage.
But what is it that makes a great teacher? Here are five key lessons I have learned that I believe are crucial for excellent teaching.
1. Find your teaching philosophy
Every great teacher knows that coming up with a teaching philosophy is important and it’s unique to each person. It is what your teaching is based on and is usually made up of central ideas, beliefs, values, and goals.
For instance, a teaching philosophy could be influenced by the Brazilian philosopher of education Paulo Freire’s approach. This is based on the idea that students should not be perceived as passive recipients of knowledge as if they were empty vessels. Instead, they should be seen as part of the knowledge-making process.
2. Be the student
I have spent much time researching and experimenting with different methods to connect with my students in class. It’s important for a teacher to put themselves in a student’s position.
A teacher may declare, for instance, that a student is being disruptive in class. It is essential to attempt to discover why the student is behaving that way.
I often discuss the necessity of defamiliarisation: the method of looking at something familiar in an unusual manner through a different lens. I have also found that having students draw pictures of their lives or watch interesting films in class that put them in new situations helps me understand their situations — particularly when I ask them to connect the stories of these films to their situations.
3. Cultivate a classroom community
Classroom community nurtures academic and emotional growth by providing a cooperative, supportive environment. Research shows that to build a community in the classroom, one needs to develop three types of presences: teaching (promoting a supportive, engaging learning environment), social (the capacity of learners and teachers to communicate meaningfully and collaboratively), and cognitive (how much students can build meaning and knowledge through critical thinking and reflection).
A great teacher knows that to make students think critically and do their work well they must first establish a strong social presence, building relationships with students that allow them to facilitate discussions and co-create knowledge with their classes.
For example, they might adopt a process of rotation, allowing all learners the opportunity to facilitate group discussions using social networking platforms like Facebook or FlipGrid. This is also great for bringing often quiet learners together for meaningful conversations where they are given the chance to talk and be heard.
4. Let students choose the technology
Although exceptional teachers are efficient at integrating digital tools with instructional techniques and subject matter, it’s also crucial that students be offered a variety of tools to choose from, giving them more freedom and choice in their learning. This is one way of disrupting teaching and learning practices: knowing when to give up control over things like the choice of technology.
This could mean using a low-tech teaching tool like Plickers in the classroom to test students’ knowledge using Plicker cards, or gamification software like Kahoot. Learners who prefer to play games in class or take quizzes from home could choose Kahoot. Plickers is a valuable tool for those who want to be more formally tested in class because it lets teachers quickly and easily see if a student understands subject matter so they can adjust their teaching accordingly. It is also an intelligent way to engage students in active learning and boost class participation.
5. Get feedback: even great teachers can be better
Your students are the best judges of how well you teach. So, it is essential to have ways for them to give you feedback on how you are performing. A great teacher should be authentic about what they do and acknowledge what worked and what did not, as well as what needs to happen for improvement.
There is no such thing as a perfect teacher because even the best teachers make mistakes. But there must be a way to unlearn bad habits and learn new ways to do things. As a teacher it’s easy to ensure that the curriculum is complete by mainly engaging in direct instruction and leaving too little space for debates in class.
I have often showed trainee teachers a free online tool for planning lessons called Learning Designer, developed by the University College London. It provides a step-by-step plan for creating learning activities and tests that align with specific learning objectives and outcomes. It’s based on British education scholar Dianna Laurillard’s six ways of learning. This has helped my students to think more deeply about whether their lessons use a good mix of different teaching methods. DM/ML
Zayd Waghid is an associate professor at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.