The 3 Traits of Great Teachers

Dead_Poets_Society__XVID___1989_-fanart_posterWhat makes certain teachers so magical? What qualities should we look for, and what ones should we ignore?

In the last month we’ve seen a provocative new wave of reporting and research on that old and important mystery, from Elizabeth Bennett (New York Times Magazine), Amanda Ripley (Atlantic), and two terrific new books, Teaching as Leadership, by Steven Farr, and Teach Like a Champion, by Doug Lemov.

You should check out the stories and accompanying videos for yourself, but here’s the key point: great teachers share certain signature traits. Some of these traits are no big surprise — for instance, great teachers don’t see mistakes as verdicts, but as opportunities for learning; great teachers are immensely skillful at “holding the floor;” i.e. managing attention. Others are a bit more surprising.

  • Trait 1: They set big, ambitious, highly specific goals.

The key word here is specific, as in “my students will progress 1.5 grade levels this year” or, in the case of basketball, “our team will score an average of 50 points a game.”  Great teachers are constantly looking for vivid, trackable measuring sticks — which, by the way, are frequently creative (for instance, an orchestra could track the number of pieces it plays perfectly).

That sounds rather obvious, but the real art is in setting the right goal, making it visceral, and using it as a type of powerful magnet, orienting the mindsets, aspirations, and identity of the group. Above all, the goal is to avoid not having any. As Farr writes, vague goals are a kind of motivational smog, dimming expectation and achievement. Great teachers are allergic to vagueness.

  • Trait 2: Great teachers are constantly revising themselves.

They see their own work as never quite good enough. Behind the scenes, they tear up old lesson plans and draw new ones. In addition, they are magpies, stealing good ideas from fellow teachers, borrowing techniques, relentlessly upgrading their game. This finding seems strange, until you think of them as engaged in constructive editing. Like any good business or athlete, they are involved in an internal kaizen process, always looking hard at results, finding tiny ways to improve. They’re obsessed with honing their neural circuitry.

  • Trait 3: Great teachers radiate satisfaction with their lives.

They simply love teaching — a finding which seems warm and cuddly until you consider the hard numbers: according to a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology cited by Ripley, teachers who scored high in life satisfaction were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. Their zeal is not coincidental; it fuels the work of the job, allowing them to reach out again and again, engaging students.

It’s also interesting to note what qualities are not on this list — namely that Dead Poets’ Society, leap-on-the-desk quality known as charisma — which doesn’t turn out to be nearly as valuable we might instinctively suppose. (Ripley’s article contains a scene of two aspiring teachers competing for a job with Teach For America; one is charismatic and charming; the other quiet and prepared. Guess who gets the job?)

The lesson: sorry, Robin Williams. While the desk-leaping sizzle of your charisma is hugely enjoyable, it’s useful only when paired with the thick, juicy steak of real educational skills.