What Makes a Good Teacher?

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At every level of education, there is a recurrent question: What constitutes good teaching? Some years ago, I embarked on an interesting bit of research in pursuit of an answer to that query. As a historian, I decided to explore the autobiographies of prominent Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries (some 125 of them). As these people--men and women of different social, economic, geographic, religious, and racial backgrounds--recounted their educational experiences, what did they have to say about teachers whom they valued?

The single most notable discovery was the extraordinarily consistent pattern in the description of the good teacher. I guess I would have to say good and memorable teacher. There were three characteristics that were described time and again--to an astonishing degree: competence in the subject matter, caring deeply about students and their success, and character, distinctive character. These attributes were evident regardless of the level of education or the subject matter being taught.

A command of subject matter, such that students picked up on the teacher's excitement about it, was fundamental. Where there was ease on the part of the teacher "moving around the subject," a dexterity of explanation and explication, students could feel the teacher's command of the material. That confidence was a root cause of a student's respect for the teacher, opening the student up for learning--making the student more engaged. Autobiographers frequently cited teachers whose keen understanding of the subject matter caused students to see the world differently.

The second characteristic seemed equally important: caring deeply about each student and about that student's accomplishment and growth. In this instance, it began with the teacher recognizing the student as an individual who brings particular experiences, interests, enthusiasms, and fears to the classroom. It was the teacher taking time to acknowledge a student's life outside the classroom, inquiring about the family's welfare or the student's participation in an extracurricular activity. It moved to an insistence that the student take pride in his or her work--stretching each person to a level of performance that surprised and delighted the student.

The third attribute, distinctive character, is the most elusive one, and it gives flavor or texture to the other two. (It is likely the attribute that contributes most to making a good teacher also a memorable teacher.) In almost all cases, there was something distinctive about the character of the effective teacher recalled in these autobiographies. It could be an unaffected eccentricity, a handicap or tragedy overcome, an unabashed passion for the subject, or a way of demonstrating concern for the student (although throwing chalk at or hugging a student are both outside of the "communication lexicon" these days). In any event, there was a palpable energy that suffused the competent and caring teacher, some mark-making quality.

I cannot emphasize enough how powerful this combination of attributes was reported to be. The autobiographers believed that their lives were changed by such teachers and professors. It should not be surprising that a vital bond through all levels of education should be the good teacher--the competent and caring "character."

Richard P. Traina is the president of Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Page 34

Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as What Makes a Good Teacher?
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