What makes a good teacher?

Recently, Australian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor, Prof Greg Craven, spoke at the National Press Club on the issue of teacher quality, arguing that the ATAR (tertiary admission rank) is a deficient indicator for selection of candidates into teacher training degrees.

His comments were made in response to the NSW Department of Education’s Great Teaching, Inspired Learning public discussion paper which cited that in NSW in 2012, ‘more than 20% of entrants to undergraduate initial teacher education courses had ATAR scores below 60 and education was the least popular course for students with ATAR scores of 90 or above’.  Prof Craven made the point that the ATAR lacked the sophistication to measure the ‘human qualities’ required for teaching.

A good teacher is a contributor.

Everybody’s got an opinion of good teachers. In most of the current literature, there are descriptions of the qualities and characteristics that make a good teacher.

When I think about what makes a good teacher, the following comes to mind.

A good teacher is:

Curious – they want to know more about their craft and know more about the students they work with. They are open to new ideas, new ways of thinking and they take responsibility for their own personal and professional growth and development.

A contributor – they give of themselves and their expertise and, in most cases, without any thought of what they receive in return.

By nature collaborative – they don’t work in isolation and are open to feedback from students and colleagues. They know that by sharing data, practice and experiences with others they will build their own capacity and the capacity of their colleagues.

Daring – they are willing to do things differently, to step outside their comfort zone. They are willing to ask the big questions without knowing the answers. They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s often when learning occurs.

An expert – they understand that you’re not at the top of your game until you’ve got years and years of good theory and practice under your belt. Throughout their career, they hone their craft because they want to get better. In turn, they become the coaches and mentors for the next generation of teacher to build their profession.

These are a few of my thoughts; I’d be interested to hear some of yours. Let’s see if we can build up a more comprehensive picture of what makes a good teacher.

9 thoughts on “What makes a good teacher?

  1. These are excellent qualities and before adding further qualities, I’d like to expand on one of those that are given.
    Teachers are curious, not only about learning itself (and that’s essential) but about their own areas of learning, their subject specialism and about other areas of learning. The good teacher is a model learner, never ceasing to enhance his or her own knowledge and students can see in the best teachers a model of that ceaseless enthusiasm for learning which teachers wish to encourage among students.
    Good teachers are effective communicators. The understand their learners and articulate ideas and concepts in ways which will be meaningful to their learners. They avoid jargon, cliche and fashionable language and communicate honestly and with integrity.
    Good teachers however are first defined by human qualities. They value and respect their learners and hold them in high regard. They demonstrate this in the small acts of their daily professional lives, by courtesy, kindness and care. They understand that adopting the values inherent in such an approach and developing the mutually warm and respectful relationships which underpin these values, are as important outcomes for their learners as any element of the formal curriculum.

  2. This is probably obvious but they need to like working with kids or young people. People can have all the above attributes but be a terrible teacher if they don’t like children and helping people.

  3. Thanks Greg…this is a much better conversation starter than I think the discussion paper is…I’d add a sense of fun/adventure to the list, which is related to your Daring category. Maybe in a technical sense though some self-efficacy measure maybe more appropriate a measure than ATAR.

  4. All good points Greg, and it makes me reflect on the fact that the blunt instrument of formal assessment is at odds with today’s model of learning, and skills development.

    Previously, I’ve seen this from the perspective of an employer – when interviewing graduates for roles, their qualifications get them into the door, but I’ve always had to develop strategies to find out the candidates’ capabilities that match the requirements – skills like communication, collaboration, customer-centricity etc
    The challenge is that the current assessment models at all levels of education don’t assess those skills, so we’re left to try and create a mechanism that can do that in a 30-minute face-to-face interview.
    And the focus on ATAR scores as students move from High School to University has exactly the same challenge – it reduces all of their work and skills down to a single number.

    As my daughter has just reached Year 12, I’ve had to understand more about this (especially as I contrast it to the model in the UK, which I’m more familiar with). She’s interested in textiles and design, and the course requirements at her choice of universities seem to have astonishingly high ATAR scores to get entry. Which is odd, as I’m not sure that I’d ever realised the exceptional academic ability was the key to being successful in textiles and design.
    I think the same is true in areas like medicine – since when did simple calculations of academic ability become the measure that you could use to assess bedside manner, patient empathy, etc?

    So the real elephant in the room here is the assessment model.

    There’s no end of people discussing the future of learning, but I don’t see many people discussing the future of assessment – in fact, the opposite seems to be true – the discussion is too often about reducing assessments to things which can be measured easily and regularly, rather than aspiring the change the assessment model.

    If we agree that the best teachers, the ones we need to have teaching are curious, expert, collaborative, daring contributors, how do we assess for that?

    1. Ray, your comments are right on. I think it’s easier than we think to “assess” good teachers using the criteria that I outlined. We sometimes make it more complex than it needs to be. We know it when we see it; we see the evidence of it in the practice and in the final product. And we understand that assessment is always a work in progress, it is not an end point. Any attempt to reduce the complexities of teaching to their lowest common denominator will always fail. In a lot of ways it’s like looking at a good painting from one of the great masters, or listening to a symphony or like looking at the work of a skilled craftsman; you can see it in the work that they do.

      1. Yes, that’s a debate I had with a chief examiner in the UK.

        Their view was that it was incredibly difficult to measure the competencies (knowledge, skills and behaviours) that typical employers were looking for. However, the reality is that the way it is being done today is subjectively, in 30 minutes, by employers/universities in a short interview for a job/student place.

        And you’re right, in a very short space of time it’s possible to get a very good feel for the competencies (heck, we’ve all been in interviews where in the first 5 minutes you know the candidate isn’t suitable, and then spend the next half hour trying to disprove your first reaction – often unsuccessfully)

        I guess it begs the question: How do we include those ‘subjective’ evaluations in an assessment? And then apply them to something like recruiting the right potentially awesome teachers into university courses?

        That would help move the debate on from simply ATARs

  5. Teaching is a craft just like any other trades but there may not be any better yardstick to measure the quality of teaching or a teacher. However, a teacher’s quality can be seen from the students in terms of their intellectual and physical attitudes when they leave the institution. This was obvious during the time of ancient ‘gurukul’ education in some Asian countries but the things have changed now. W. A. Ward says, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates but the great teacher inspires”. Greg, in your earlier article ( It’s easier to tell than to teach, 6th August, 2012), you have mentioned that ‘good teaching candidates require deep subject knowledge; they need to be able to relate well to young people’. It is undeniably true that teaching needs people skill. Hence, both relational skill and deep subject knowledge are indispensable and inseparable and they are just like railway track to carry the carriages of students to the destination.

  6. To build on Nidy’s comments and the qualities listed above I also believe you need to be authentically reflective, be able to analyse the points of where to make a difference (if you don’t understand then be willing to ask a variety of probing questions to yourself or the students) and then act.

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