What Makes a Great Teacher?


Picture by Sierra Gutierrez

By Sierra Gutierrez, Staff Writer

As a high school senior, I’ve been taught by about forty-five teachers in my life. Every single one had a unique way of running their classroom. Some were strict, others funny, and some were just unreasonably chill. There are only a few, however, that stand out as great.


My short list of great teachers doesn’t include all of my favorites; it purposely omits the man who generously let my lame middle school club use his classroom during lunch, the awesome science teacher who could talk Star Wars and Doctor Who for hours, and that guy who never marks me late no matter what time I show up (thanks for that, by the way). Although every student appreciates having at least one ‘cool’ teacher who’ll cut them some slack on a rough day, there is a clear delineation between those teachers that were easy or likable and those who were such great educators that they and their content will stick with me for years to come.


So what is it that separates the good from the great in this case? It’s a question that kids and administrators alike have been trying to answer for a long time, and one that a short article in a school newspaper couldn’t hope to answer in any satisfying way. Nevertheless, as the child of two educators and a longtime benefactor of the modern American education system, I feel it may be helpful to offer my perspective on what exactly makes a teacher great.


A great teacher…

  1. …Communicates clearly and effectively
    1. Clear communication and strong verbal ability are the hallmarks of an effective teacher. These traits manifest themselves as well-defined, accurate, and specific rubrics and instructions as well as the ability to distill an overwhelming mass of information into its most important components. Although it may seem like a basic skill, I’ve studied under many teachers who could be surprisingly oblique when it came to what exactly they expected students to accomplish with certain tasks and assignments. Trying to hide or be clever with the purpose of an activity often leads to frustration on the end of the student – the best teachers know this, and they also know that most students will gladly meet their requirements once they understand precisely what it is they’re supposed to be doing.
    2. In addition to giving detailed instructions, clarity also plays a large role in how the best teachers present their content. A truly skilled teacher will spend the majority of their instruction time telling students exactly what they need to know in the simplest terms possible. While outside sources and fun stories have their place, most students are keenly aware of teachers’ tendencies to stray off-topic while addressing the class. By avoiding problems ranging from hyper-focusing on irrelevant but semi-interesting content to veering completely off-track into a discussion of the teacher’s personal life, a great teacher keeps a clearly defined purpose and message to center on whenever they speak to the class, and consequently creates a distinct and focused setting in which learning may take place.
  2. …Forms meaningful relationships with students
    1. Though it is likely much easier said than done, great teachers are the ones who put in the effort to form a personal relationship with each student on an individual level (in my experience, English teachers Mr. Jenison and Mrs. McElroy are especially strong in this area). By making active attempts at conversation and openness, talented teachers not only make the classroom environment generally more pleasant and welcoming, but are also able to inspire and motivate students to work harder and be more engaged in productive discussions.
    2. I cannot stress enough how important it is to students to feel that their teachers care. Whether consciously or subconsciously, many students view teachers as second only to their parents on the hierarchy of respected adult figures; and, similarly to their parents, are sensitive to the approval and attention of their educators. Through the formation of meaningful relationships, a student and a teacher can create an air of understanding and mutual respect that is a core element of great teaching and one that certainly sticks with students later on.
  3. …Has high standards and encourages higher-level thinking
    1. I’ve noticed that great teachers are often also the ones who push their kids the hardest – and I don’t mean in the sense that they assign the most homework. Here on the Quartz Hill campus, the math teacher Mrs. Benavides as well as several teachers in the Spanish department are exemplary in their enforcement of these standards. Great teachers like them expect a lot out of their students in terms of analytical ability as well as their ability to apply their knowledge to realistic situations. This is partially due to the inherent rigor of certain subject matter, as well as a mark of faith in the students that attend the class. Holding kids to a high standard of excellence gives the students a sense of obligation to meet that standard, and if they are able to succeed in meeting it the first time, boost their confidence in their own ability to handle tough material as well.
    2. The ‘higher-level thinking’ bit comes along quite naturally with the ‘high standards’ part, though it is not quite the same. Higher-level, or critical, thinking happens when students are allowed to engage with subject matter in a complex and interactive way. Socratic seminars, debates, and even informal class discussions all fall into this category and are always among the most popular activities with students in any class. Although these types of activities fall most naturally to the Social Studies and English departments, great teachers always make an effort to get every student to interact with the material in a way that is much more interesting and stimulating than any crossword puzzle could ever be.
  4. …Is enthusiastic about both their subject and the act of teaching
    1. While there is generally teacher interest in the subject that they have chosen to dedicate their lives to teaching, it seems that many teachers simply dislike having to share their knowledge with a random class of teens and would rather not speak to students at all if they could avoid it. This combination of a passing affection for the subject and a complete disinterest in the act of teaching itself is a terrible but oddly common occurrence among more mediocre teachers. To be a good teacher, then, requires that one has a genuine passion for teaching and interacting with students on a daily basis.
    2. What separates the good from the great in this area, however, is how the teacher acts when their passion for being in a classroom has taken a bit of a dip. A great teacher understands the weight he or she brings to the classroom – if he or she is excited to teach, the students will be excited to learn. Knowing that, the great teacher is able to push through with a smile – no matter how obviously fake – for the sake of the class. Understandably, there are few who can achieve this on a consistent basis. Those who can, like a famously peppy elementary teacher of mine, are truly something special.
  5. …Constantly reflects and seeks improvement
    1. This is exactly what it sounds like. A great teacher is always growing, always adapting, and always seeking ways to improve. They are not rigid and stuck in the way things have always been done, and they are aware that perhaps they have not yet developed the perfect system for running a classroom. They seek and listen to feedback from colleagues and students alike and are willing to change for the sake of their pupils’ education.
    2. This trait of great teachers is one that is fed by all the rest: great teachers who communicate well with their students and develop personal relationships with them can get a better idea of where they need to improve, great teachers with a passion for teaching are always examining their own teaching methods and those of the wider teaching world to find new, exciting ways of going about things, and great teachers who hold their kids to a high standard will always be looking for fresh ways to challenge their student’s minds.

A great teacher can make all the difference in the lives of their students. Growing up, I was lucky to know so many great men and women who possessed all these traits and more. I had teachers who were clear and spoke effectively, who I felt cared for me on a personal level, who pushed me to think critically, and who had an obvious love for spreading knowledge and helping others grow in that area. These teachers were some of my greatest friends as I went through my school years, providing wells of support and wise advice even after I’d left their classroom behind. And now, as my childhood is coming to a close, I hope to follow their examples and one day become a teacher worthy of being called ‘great.’