What Makes a Great Teacher Great?

When you think of some of your best high school teachers, those whom you learned the most from, what comes to mind? What makes those teachers more effective? Or, on the other hand, what made some teachers who taught very little so bad at teaching? I’ve been pondering these ideas as I’m working on planning my teens’ education, trying to figure out how to help them learn best.

I think of my Trigonometry and Calculus teacher who took us outside and had us work on calculating the height of the flag pole. Though we’d had such problems in the book, this simple “field” trip suddenly made the calculations we’d been doing make sense. I understood why it could be necessary to use similar triangles or trigonometric functions when I realized we couldn’t measure it by scaling the flag pole. Her math team helped me see practical uses in things like factoring the difference of two squares as we used it to mentally calculate products of large factors. She demonstrated things and showed the practical uses of them and therein shared an enthusiasm for the subject. She made us get up and explain how we’d come up with some of our answers, rather than just looking at what we wrote. She was a terrific math teacher.

There was a chemistry teacher who was very strict, serious most of the time, and worked us hard but also knew how to have fun. He’d worked for NASA at one time and was determined to make sure we learned the subject. He had us practice titrations after school for a chemistry competition at a university but he also led another class to hide  out with a stash of paper wads which they threw at us, rather like a snowball fight with paper, before they scurried to their next class. His teaching got me into honors chemistry in college a couple of years later and when the professor’s lectures were confusing, I went back to what he’d taught me and did well.

On the other hand, there was the physical science teacher who spent most of his time telling annoying, disgusting, and belittling jokes, who rarely had us engage with the subject matter in any way. Every so often, he spent a little time having us read aloud portions of the book (without any explanation or discussion) before giving us a test what we’d read as well as material he’d never explained to us. He was proud when no one, in any of his classes, earned an A on a test.

As I think about the various teachers that I had, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the best ones did make us go through a lot of material, it was the stuff they did outside the textbook that really stands out as what I learned from them. The hands-on activities, projects, field trips, etc. tend to stand out as promoting learning. Discussions and having us give presentations also seemed to end up with us learning more.

Now to figure out how to use these observations to help plan our year. I’m already looking at getting the kids more involved in planning their lessons, in having them engage in more projects and presentations and such….






2 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Teacher Great?

  1. What great examples of wonderful teachers!

    If I were to express what made great teachers great, it would be a love of what they teach; a passion for the subject taught and learning in general. Examples were good, hands-on activities nice. But passion is catching, like fire!


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