Education Opinion

What Makes a Great Teacher?

By Jack Schneider — September 08, 2014 10 min read
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What makes a great teacher?

According to the loudest and most influential education reformers, the answer is pretty straightforward. Great teachers have mastery over their subject matter, can design coherent lesson plans, and are able to track student improvement.

But while it’s true that great teachers possess those skills, it is deeply misguided to believe that those skills alone make a great teacher. Because, whether we like it or not, teaching is about relationships. So, yes, great teachers know their material. But they also engage and inspire. They can design a challenging lesson. But they also know how to build trust and foster a sense of care. They are interested in tracking student improvement. But they are also deeply concerned with the broader task of human improvement. Great teachers are no less than our friends, mentors, and role models.

We must remember this in our policy discussions about teacher recruitment, evaluation, and compensation. Because if we do not, then our policies—however arduously crafted—rest on a false premise. And they will fail.

Great teachers, to borrow from Walt Whitman, are large; they contain multitudes. Why, then, are our policies so small and narrow? The answer is not that policymakers are greedy or evil, as some reform opponents claimed. Instead, it is that they possess a narrow definition of great teaching. And if we want that to change, we need to work harder to help them see a more complete picture.

With that in mind, I’d like to post a letter that my wife, Katie Henderson, wrote to her students on the first day of school. Though she doesn’t offer a definition of a great teacher in this letter, she does put on full display some of the characteristics that great teachers possess—characteristics that are almost never discussed in policy debates about teachers.

Dear students,

When I was in middle school, I kept in touch with my friends from Quaker farm camp (a story for another time) through letters. I would check my mailbox each day, eagerly flipping through the mail in search of an envelope with my name and address scrawled across the front. My grandmother and I also wrote letters to one another, always signing off with “Old Buddy.” In sixth grade, I exchanged notes in the hallways with my new friends. I have been cheered up, broken up with (rough, right?) and forgiven via letter. Every year, I write a letter to my daughter, hoping that she’ll someday read them and know me. My husband occasionally writes me letters on the back of train tickets, napkins and barf bags. And I’ve written numerous letters of recommendation for my students, young people with whom I’ve connected. Looking back now, I understand that my memories of these letters are colored by nostalgia, that I’ve over-romanticized their presence in my life (although it was pretty romantic when I sent the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” to David, my camp crush. He did not write back.) But I don’t think I’m underestimating the power of letters. Letters connect us. They allow us to share parts of ourselves with other people—the mundane but also the profound, the everyday minutia but also our big questions, our revelations. In short, letters are about expression and connection—two things I find to be absolutely essential to the English classroom. And so today, I write you—my new students—a letter.

First, my story. How did I get here? I arrived three years ago, so I’m a little like my niece, who has just learned to swim: totally staying afloat but likely to drown without strict supervision (for example, I still don’t know where the science department office is, but I do know about pasta Wednesdays). Though I’m newish to the school, I’m not new to teaching, although this wasn’t always the case. In 2002, I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English and a job in a cubicle. Officially, I was a technical writer at a large corporation. Unofficially, I was bored. So bored. Meanwhile, Jack (who is now my husband) had begun teaching history. Here is how I remember our conversations going at the end of the day:

Me: How was your day?

Him: Amazing! Challenging! Fun! The BEST! It was like climbing a mountain—so hard, but so rewarding. How was your day?

Me: It was like dying a thousand small deaths.

Ok, so maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I knew I couldn’t sit in an office everyday for the rest of my life (first sidebar: when it comes time for you to choose a career, think about how you want to spend your days. Do you want to be by yourself or surrounded by people? Do you want routine or surprises? Do you want to be inside or outside? Standing or sitting? Of course, your interests and goals matter too, but so do your days. Because ultimately, our days are all we have, right?). So, I went back to school, back to Penn to earn my masters in teaching secondary English.

There is a lot of thinking you can do as you learn to be a teacher. You have to consider your pedagogy, your questions, your values. You have to think about how to structure a particular lesson. You have to create handouts and discussion questions. Yes, there is a lot to do before you step into the classroom. But the only real way to learn how to be a teacher is to teach, to step off the precipice (second sidebar: step off a few precipices in your life. Not real ones, of course. Unless you’re cliff diving. And if you’re cliff diving, that’s awesome.). Teaching is a wild job. I totally get that some professions actually demand that you enter the jungle, but besides those, I know of few other jobs that are as unpredictable and crazy as teaching. While you can control your own actions and your own lesson, you can never anticipate what your students will bring to the table. Students are the variable in any classroom. I can teach the same lesson four times, and it will go differently every time because of you—because you’re the wild cards (or animals, I suppose, if we’re sticking with the jungle metaphor). This, of course, gives you quite a bit of power to make or break a lesson, and really, to make or break my life. So, here is the first thing you need to know about me a teacher: because of how I plan my lessons, I am only as good as my students. I leave spaces, openings, places for you to take the reins, for you to ask questions, for you to bring laughter to our classroom. If you don’t do this, our class will feel more zoo than jungle, and let’s be honest, zoos smell bad.

But back to my story. I received my masters and promptly moved to California so that Jack could pursue his PhD at Stanford. I began teaching nearby, and I was given the freedom to experiment, to grow, to fail. I stayed there for five years, and it was there that I put down roots as an educator. But it was time to move on, and move on we did—from the busy streets of San Francisco to the flat prairies of Minnesota. Jack accepted a two-year fellowship at Carleton College, and so we found ourselves living in rural Minnesota with the newest and most awesome addition to our family—Annabelle. I spent a year at home, caring for our infant daughter and thinking about what came next. I decided to enter a PhD program myself in order to think more deeply about the things that mattered to me about teaching English—how to help students use texts to understand the world around them in more complicated ways, how to teach particular habits of mind, so that students would leave my classroom willing to question and perhaps challenge the status quo, and how to use writing as a way to discover and engage the world. I felt like it was time to dig into the research, to conduct some of my own research, and in short, to theorize. I loved it—to have the time to simply think about teaching and literature without the wildness of an actual classroom. But another choice awaited us: Jack was offered a position at Holy Cross, and I could either continue my studies at Boston College or return to the classroom. Though I loved being a student again, I missed teaching—really, I missed the jungle. And so I came back.

I don’t teach English because I love literature. I mean, I do love literature. I love reading, I love discussing books, and I love talking about language. But what I really love about teaching English is that is it allows us to discuss ideas, to examine our world, and to begin to formulate our own beliefs. It was in English class that I began to stand on my own two feet, to consider, question and sometimes challenge what I had already been taught. It was in English class that I first allowed myself to be open to other people’s ideas. And it was in English class that I found my own voice. So this is why I teach English. We will, of course, discuss and apply literary terms, we’ll do grammar practice, we’ll have vocab quizzes, but we’ll also try to connect the books we’re reading to your own experiences; we’ll conduct cultural criticism; we’ll talk about real world issues. My goals for you are simple: I want you to see reading as a way to better understand the world we live in, and I want you to see writing as a way to engage that world. I want you to leave here both more skeptical and more empathetic—that is, with the ability to question what you see, to always consider alternative stories and points of view, but also with a greater ability to feel someone else’s lived experience—their joy, their pain, their limitations and opportunities.

Finally, when I stand before you, I am a teacher, but I am also many other things, just as you are many things besides a student. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, a runner, and a coach. I am a reader, a writer, and a hiker. I suffer from wanderlust. I am training for a marathon. I am an introvert. Like Beyonce, I am a feminist. I fight for the things I believe in. I like good food and good television (also some bad food and some bad television). I would like to spend less time on Facebook (mostly because I think it stopped being cool in 2007, right?). I love to be by myself. But spending time with my husband and daughter is also incredibly important to me. In the summers, the three of us escape. We drive thousands of miles, camping, hiking and visiting our friends who live scattered across the country. On our trips, I try to see the world with new eyes, to see poetry in the light and air. This summer, it was the image of trees in the mountain wind, their leaves moving together like rippled water. Last summer, it was the golden light on the side of hill. These are the images that I try to hold within me as a new school year starts—the quiet, the stillness, the beauty. I like hiking for the same reason I like teaching—the challenge, the focus, the rewards. Each summer, I spend as much time as possible outside, breathing fresh air, looking at the stars, and trying to remember that our days are all we have. It’s important to give them meaning. I like teaching because it’s hard. I like teaching because it’s fun. But mostly, I like teaching because it fills my days with meaning.

On that note, you’re up.

There are no requirements for your response, only that it tells me something about you—but that “something” can be anything. If you’re stuck, here are some questions: What do you care about? What matters to you outside of school? What do you like best about English class? What do you like least about English class? What do you wish English class could be like? What do you think the purpose of English is? Who are you as a learner? How do you learn best? What is something you do really well? What is something you’re learning to do? What is something you wish you could do? Is there a story that captures something essential about you? You can also respond directly to anything I’ve written here. Feel free to ask me questions, compliment my choice of font, or share your own stories about letters, jungles, or school.

I am looking forward to our year together, and our ongoing correspondence.

The question school reformers should be asking themselves is a simple one: how do we get more teachers to approach their work like this?

But while the question is simple, the answer isn’t. And it’s time that our policy discussions start reflecting that.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.