We all have a memory of our favorite teacher, almost always, the one who made us think we could do the impossible. In my case, it was Ms. Sampson. I left third grade and my third-grade teacher Ms. Gordon feeling like I didn’t measure up — and I didn’t. I wasn’t as fast, as clever, or as driven as my classmates. Ms. Gordon actually reprimanded me so roughly in front of the class once that a classmate I barely knew came to my defense, explaining to Ms. Gordon that it wasn’t my fault. Some students learn differently.
My fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Sampson, changed all that. When I entered her class, I did think it was my fault, that I wasn’t smart enough, but she explained without a single word where I was wrong. She didn’t do it by being an easy grader or downsizing my work requirements or even unduly praising me. She didn’t try to be my best friend and she didn’t make excuses for my third-grade failures. Maybe this was because she was new and didn’t know how to profile students who would succeed from those who wouldn’t. In fact, she wasn’t any of the characteristics we often equate to great teachers.
Now, as a teacher myself, I wanted to understand why Ms. Sampson succeeded where Ms. Gordon, a Nationally-recognized Teacher and in the Top Five in my school district, so abysmally failed to spark my love of learning. I started by reviewing knowledgeable websites like Benchmark Education. I read books like James Stronge’s Qualities of Effective Teachers. Then, I queried colleagues, administrators, and parents about why they thought some teachers succeed in preparing students for college and career and others just don’t.
Turns out that effective teachers all have certain characteristics:
You see it right away. Effective teachers care about the student, their goals, and their achievement of goals. They are tolerant, even encourage out-of-the-ordinary thinking, and don’t try to push students or their performance into a box. They are ready and willing to take the extra time and effort to make learning work for an individual student.
I had a student once — Belop — who was one of those challenging students. His tolerance for change was low as was his tenacity. If he didn’t get things right the first time, he’d act out in class. It became routine for me to adapt lessons to Belop’s learning style and be there after school whenever his mother could get him to see me for extra help. I did it because it was the right thing for Belop and didn’t realize the impact I had on him until the day I left that school. His mother — a colleague — came to me in tears, saying I was the rare teacher who accommodated her boy, didn’t get mad at him for things he couldn’t control, and really tried to listen to his needs. I’ve never forgotten that.
Effective teachers listen. Too often, student complaints sound like whining, white noise that is ignored or brushed aside with a quick, “Don’t worry.” Where a modicum of differentiation in the lesson plan, classwork, or homework would result in a successful experience for the child, some teachers miss the opportunity to accomplish the exact goal that got them into teaching: to make a difference in the life of a child.
With my fourth graders, I routinely used a popular game called Oregon Trail to teach not only westward expansion but about the problem solving and critical thinking employed by many early Americans. One of my students, Seibert (not his name) was horrified with the idea of killing animals, especially with guns. Maybe it was his parents’ influence but that didn’t matter. I could have excused him from the lesson but then he would lose the wonderful experience of learning about the daily trials required to survive an unknown world. I offered to let him work with another student, act more as a third-party viewer, but that still was too much for him so I made a list of the learning goals tied to this lesson and let him research them. While other students played the game, he went to websites I’d vetted to teach him what he needed to learn in non-violent, animal-friendly ways. His parents approached me at Open House to thank me for allowing their child to experience that time in history in ways that suited their family values.
They are knowledgeable
Effective teachers make it their responsibility to not only excel at the craft of teaching but exhibit the knowledge they are responsible for imparting to their students. This not only includes material in the curriculum but the tangents that eager students want to pursue. A lesson in the effect of railroads on opening up the American West may morph to a discussion on the Underground Railroad. Effective teachers embrace connections like these because in the end, learning is about student curiosity, a fundamental characteristic with lifelong learners.
They are flexible
Lesson plans are a nice idea, maybe even important to teaching, but teachers know they don’t survive the first five minutes. Effective teachers don’t let that stop them. They listen to students as they are teaching, maybe through a backchannel or questions, hear where the lesson plan isn’t working, and adjust as needed.
I had a 4th grader once. She was a serious, hard-working student but expected perfection of herself. It was a challenge to correct her without having her shut down, declare herself a failure, and move on. This came to a head during keyboarding practice, something we worked on weekly. She was far slower than the 4th-grade goal for typing speed but her accuracy was stunning. I watched her during one of the quizzes and she paid attention to all the characteristics that would eventually make her a top-notch typist but were now slowing her down to about half of any other 4th grader. But I graded on improvement, comparing her progress to herself rather than classmates. This worked spectacularly for her. By the end of the year, with her plodding perfectionism, she became one of the fastest typists.
They are committed to a student’s success
Top teachers know excelling is less about assigning a grade than what is learned. Failure to understand material could be due to inattention in class or not doing homework, but it might also be that a student lacks the background to make the necessary connections that allow him/her to “get” what you’re teaching.
That’s happened to me more than once but one example stands out. Anhil (not his real name) came from a personalized learning school where instruction was freeform based on what the student wanted to learn. Anhil was much more knowledgeable than any other 6th grader about the solar system but his math skills were seriously deficient. He long ago declared math as too difficult and thus avoided it. In my school, controlled by state standards, he could no longer do that. When I discussed this with him and his parents, it was clear Anhil was bright, curious, and eager to learn. I used those traits to buttress his math learning. Instead of having him participate in class lessons (which daily would make him feel like a failure), I enrolled him in Khan Academy’s online student-directed math program. He took a pretest to see where his math skills were, found the holes in his grade-level knowledge, and then he self-directed the recommended lessons, going at his own pace. By the end of the school year, he was fully caught up with classmates with a new attitude that math was not only fun but easy. By adapting to his innate need for self-direction augmented with curiosity, I leveled his playing field.
They teach students in ways that communicate to them
Teaching no longer involves a knowledgeable teacher who lectures from the front of the room. That may work well for the majority of students but “majority” is 51%. That means 49% of students could be scratching their heads, trying to figure out what is going on. Effective teachers have many methods to communicate, everything from gamifying learning to hands-on projects, robotics, and simulations. Their mindset is to be ready and willing to teach students where they are prepared to learn rather than where the majority is.
For me, this is so routine I don’t even think about it anymore. One example is I always allow students to retake quizzes. I call it a Mulligan — a do-over. Fear of tests or a bad day shouldn’t measure student knowledge or assess their success. Most of my students don’t take advantage of this but one particular student excelled at it. He’d submit his original work and then use my grade sheet as a to-do list of what he needed to accomplish. He’d come in after school, practice, check with me, and tick items off until he’d corrected every mistake and ultimately improved his grade. That worked fine for both of us.
I’ve listed six critical qualities but the one most important is love. If students believe you love them, if you do love them, then you work out ways to achieve goals you and they wouldn’t have thought possible.
–published first on TeachHUB
More on effective teachers
Characteristics of Effective Teachers — from Stanford University
Top Qualities of Effective Teachers — from Georgetown University
Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice reviewer, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, contributor to NEA Today, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning. Read Jacqui’s tech thriller series, Rowe-Delamagente.