Normally, I spend most of my time observing secondary-level Language Arts teachers, and each teacher is always working towards a different project or goal. But a couple of years ago, I had the chance to spend an amazing week watching teachers from 3rd grade all the way to 12th grade. They were teaching grammar lessons using a new technique we were implementing based on an amazing book (Everyday Editing by Jeff Anderson), and they were learning to teach grammar in a less traditional, more investigative way. Our elementary-level Language Arts coordinator was out for the week, so I took over for her, giving me the rare experience of observing a large group of teachers from many different levels as they each tried the same new techniques.
Some teachers felt like they had been fairly successful, others less so. Yet the actual “success” of the new method wasn’t what really mattered. Excellent teaching is more than following a “technique.” All week, something became clearer and clearer to me: great teachers do the same things, whether they teach 3rd grade, 6th grade, or 12th grade. The best classes embodied the same basic principles:
- Meticulous preparation. In the best lessons I saw, the concept being covered was obviously well-researched, materials were organized, and everything was ready to go (agenda on the board, morning work ready, charts prepared, student materials photocopied with holes punched in them). A well-prepared lesson feels completely different than one in which the teacher is “winging it” — it gives a sense of structure and focus that cannot be faked.
- Enthusiasm. This is so important. Teachers who showed passion for what they were doing, who infused their voices with energy and obviously loved what they were teaching, received the same energy and enthusiasm in return from their students, no matter the grade level.
- Thoughtful questions. The truly best lessons were not “taught” through lectures or explanations. Instead, they were “guided” through questions that ignited students’ curiosity, pushed them to go further in their thinking, and helped them discover their own answers.
- Warmth, caring, and respect. In the very best classes, the teacher’s caring for his/her students was palpable. In those classrooms, I heard gentle patience, kind words, and a welcoming tone. There were no sarcastic or impatient remarks. It was obvious that kids felt safe and free to take risks.
- Humor. This was another universal sign of strong teaching – at every grade level, when I saw teachers and students laughing together, it was obvious that they were relaxed and comfortable with each other. The classroom was an enjoyable place where students wanted to be.
I’m sure there are other traits that make a great teacher, but all week long, whenever I saw a classroom full of kids eager to learn, these were the commonalities that jumped out at me. No matter what subject you teach, no matter what age your students are, these basic principles are essential to good teaching.
I am grateful to all the teachers who allow me watch them and learn from them… it’s always an enriching experience and definitely the best part of my job.
What do you think are some of the best traits teachers bring to the table? What signs of excellent teaching do you look for in a classroom?