What Makes You a Good Teacher?
It would be easy enough to just post my resume here, wouldn’t it? Classroom teacher for eight years. Grade team and department leader. Curriculum writer. Teacher development coach. Committee member. Club advisor. Field trip chaperone. (And, sure, amateur social worker, nurse, life coach, interior designer, vintage-infused-business-casual fashion maven…the list goes on.) But are bullets on a resume really what make you a good teacher? Maybe not. So let me tell you what I think really makes me (or anyone) a good teacher: a commitment to professional and personal growth; keeping relationships with students at the center of what you do; and staying humble and grateful.
I stay committed to professional and personal growth as I move into being (I can hardly believe it!) a mid-career National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT). Being a NBCT (a voluntary, rigorous, national certification for which you can apply after you have earned tenure) means that you are willing and able to regularly reflect on your practice and use a wide variety of tools to improve your practice, ultimately and always in the service of improving outcomes for students. I continue to attend trainings and professional development, read blogs and books, and work with my own instructional coach (even as I’ve begun coaching other teachers myself!) to get better results for my kids.
Professional and personal growth will be obvious to you as you begin your career. You will need, of course, to read textbooks and articles, write papers, attended professional development sessions, and visit your more experienced colleagues. You will need to be honest with yourself every day that you are a tiny part of a vast and pixelated picture, but, as you make your tiny part of the picture clearer and sharper and brighter, you really are improving the whole picture. And you need to keep doing that, too, even (especially!) once you start to think you know it all! (Here’s some good news: you will, in the midst of bad days, sometimes have good days, too, ones will make you think that you, teacher, are full of awesome like no one has ever been.)
That leads me to the issue of personal growth. I’ve grown a lot through my career, and I think a lot of that is actually because I’m a teacher. I don’t know if I would have been forced to develop as much patience, compassion, circumspection, and curiosity if I’d stayed in my career in publishing. You need all of those things to work with students, of course, but you need them to work with yourself, too. I still have to remind myself that the kids who need love the most will often ask for it in the most unloving ways, and that maybe they more than anyone else need to see a calm, smiling face that says, “Good morning. It’s nice to see you. Ready to get out your notebook and get started? Thank you.” That might feel thankless a lot of the time, even most of the time, but it won’t feel thankless when those students graduate and start college because you and your colleagues did that, every single day.
That true story, and others, reminds me that we all have to keep relationships with students at the heart of what we do. A student who feels demeaned, frustrated, and ignored isn’t going to learn much. A student who feels welcomed, understood, and supported, on the other hand, will keep coming back, keep trying, and will ultimately succeed. I’ve heard kids express frustration with teachers who don’t maintain high behavioral standards in their classroom. But all kids like to feel like the teacher is happy to see them; they secretly like the teacher who, for example, stands at the door and smiles and says “Good morning!” and compliments those new sneakers. I look for opportunities to have those small, warm moments with kids, to enjoy the in-jokes that grow out of classes, to go on trips, to chat in the hallways with kids who are sluggish and shepherd them gently but firmly to class.
As I think about how to conclude this post, maybe my reaction to being asked to write about “What makes you a good teacher?” suggests one more criterion for being one. I thought, “Well, I work hard, and I care about kids, and my students have achieved great things, but boy, do I still have some bad days! Thank heavens I work in an excellent school with a lot of terrific kids and I get to teach with books I love so much.” So I try to stay humble and grateful. Take pride in your hard work and enjoy the kids, but expect that, as skilled and comfortable as you will (eventually!) become in your role, you, too, will still have bad days and will still have things to learn. Express gratitude for the support offered by your colleagues and for the unexpected kindnesses you will receive from kids and their families. Treasure the notes in which kids write that you were always there for them, took the time to slow down when they didn’t understand, and helped them feel strong, smart, and successful.
If you commit to being a lifelong learner, keep relationships with students at the heart of what you do, and stay humble and grateful, you can and will have a wonderful career as an educator. Am I a good teacher? Well, only to the extent that I do all of those things. If I do them, and I keep doing them, I think I’m doing all right!