Define good…

What makes a good teacher? Ask five different people, and you’ll get five different answers.

I have been thinking about this question a lot lately. Is a good teacher one who is super organized and sticks to the schedule, or one who is more flexible? Is a good teacher one who uses more constructionist methods in the classroom, or one who favors reading a chapter and answering questions? Is a good teacher one who only calls parents when there is a problem, or one who calls home simply to inform parents that their child had a really good day?

With all of the debate these days as to how to evaluate teachers, how do we personally define what makes a teacher good? I do not ask this question to solve the evaluation debate (that would be a whole other entry), but rather because I am trying to answer the question for myself. I want to be a good teacher, but what does that mean?

Looking back on my own elementary experience, I find that I do not favor one teacher over another. Actually, they all seem to blend together. You see, I was bullied a lot in elementary school, so most of my memories are tied to that. For me, I can start picking out different qualities in teachers starting in high school and through college. For example, my high school government and economics teacher asked us to keep a journal throughout the year, and every so often he would collect the journals and respond to them. As a kid, I liked the fact that my teacher valued my opinion enough to 1) allow me to write about it, and 2) took the time to respond to it.

Last semester I was privileged to observe a 2nd grade teacher in a local school district. She planned her lessons carefully, had control over the classroom, and worked closely with the special education teacher (this class was integrated) and with her student teacher. But what struck me as “good” was her understanding of the kids. She treated them as people and created activities focused on the kids relationship with each other. For example, on the first day of school the teacher wanted the kids to get to know each other. She gave each student a cardboard cube and asked them to personalize it by drawing pictures of things from their home life (e.g. a pet), hobbies they enjoy, favorite subjects, favorite books, etc. Then, she took a picture of each child, printed it, and placed it on one side of the cube. When all the cubes were finished, she gathered the students on the carpet in the front of the room and each child presented the cube to the class. While telling me about this activity, the teacher explained that she does this activity every year on the first day of school because she wants the kids to feel comfortable talking to each other and talking to her. If they feel comfortable, the kids will be more engaged in lessons, more willing to ask and answer questions, be willing and able to help each other, and be more vocal (with her) about any struggles they may be having. I can tell you that her method worked and it worked well because the children got along with each other, almost every hand went up for every question the teacher asked, and the kids (remember, these are 2nd graders) had meaningful dialog during lessons.

Another example that I really liked about this teacher concerns the students’ birthdays. Over the five days I observed this teacher, two of the children celebrated birthdays. On each of these days, the teacher placed a little card on the child’s desk to announce that he or she is the birthday boy or girl. Then, when the children settled in, she gave each student a piece of paper with a big birthday cake printed on it. The children wrote birthday greetings to the birthday boy/girl and colored in the cake. The teacher would then collect each piece of paper, assemble it as a book, and give it the birthday boy/girl at the end of the day. Also at the end of the day, the child’s parents (if available) would come in with cupcakes. Everyone would sing happpy birthday, enjoy the treats, and the child’s parents would read a book (chosen by the birthday boy/girl) to the entire class.

Did these activities take away precious moments of teaching time? Yes; however, the teacher realized how important it is for children to form relationships with each other. Plus, she snuck in academic elements into the activities. For example, the children practiced their language and speaking skills when presenting their cubes to the class, they practiced their writing while composing their birthdays greetings, and experienced a read-aloud at the end of the birthday days, listening and acquiring new vocabulary.

I am still trying to define what makes a good teacher; however, I think that being aware that our students are people (albeit little ones) is definitely a good trait. Any ideas?




  1. To define good teaching you must first define good learning. And just as you mentioned, the experience of writing the birthday greetings is actually a good learning moment (very teachable moment, too). You can include there different ares of learning, for example social-emotional learning (helping students understand what the recipient would like to see instead of writing from their own point of view – not to talk about the importance for receiving all this attention from classmates). I wonder, though, how as a bullied student you would have felt about receiving such notes from your classmates?

    I have one thing for your “good teacher” – definitions listing:

    Empowerment. The best teacher is the one who empowers students to learn. (Just like your HS teacher did by asking you to write and taking time to respond).)

    To become a good teacher you must look beyond teaching and focus on learning.

    • I really like this, Nina. Thank you! As teachers, we are there for our students, and our students are there to learn. My literacy teacher often tells us that teachers must try to foster a lifelong love of reading among our students, but perhaps it should really be a lifelong love of learning (not just reading).

      To answer your question, I think I would have felt accepted. I did well in school, but I was a quiet student who rarely raised my hand because my peers always made fun of me. I didn’t think anything I had to say was worth saying. Looking back, I think I would have gotten more out of school if I had a better relationship with my peers.

      • Thank you for your kind words! Relationships, growth and understanding are all important processes in learning situations.

        I train teachers to use 3Cs in the classroom: cognitive (love of learning), constructive (the feedback systems, and the process of learning) and co-operative (emotionally safe learning environments). Combining these three tools makes learning easier and more effective. I wish all teachers knew that. 🙂

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