What makes a great teacher?

Study after study shows the single most important factor determining the quality of the education a child receives is the quality of his teacher.

By GreatSchools Staff

What makes a great teacher? Teaching is one of the most complicated jobs today. It demands broad knowledge of subject matter, curriculum, and standards; enthusiasm, a caring attitude, and a love of learning; knowledge of discipline and classroom management techniques; and a desire to make a difference in the lives of young people. With all these qualities required, it's no wonder that it's hard to find great teachers.

Here are some characteristics of great teachers

  • Great teachers set high expectations for all students. They expect that all students can and will achieve in their classroom, and they don't give up on underachievers.
  • Great teachers have clear, written-out objectives. Effective teachers have lesson plans that give students a clear idea of what they will be learning, what the assignments are and what the grading policy is. Assignments have learning goals and give students ample opportunity to practice new skills. The teacher is consistent in grading and returns work in a timely manner.
  • Great teachers are prepared and organized. They are in their classrooms early and ready to teach. They present lessons in a clear and structured way. Their classrooms are organized in such a way as to minimize distractions.
  • Great teachers engage students and get them to look at issues in a variety of ways. Effective teachers use facts as a starting point, not an end point; they ask "why" questions, look at all sides and encourage students to predict what will happen next. They ask questions frequently to make sure students are following along. They try to engage the whole class, and they don't allow a few students to dominate the class. They keep students motivated with varied, lively approaches.
  • Great teachers form strong relationships with their students and show that they care about them as people. Great teachers are warm, accessible, enthusiastic and caring. Teachers with these qualities are known to stay after school and make themselves available to students and parents who need them. They are involved in school-wide committees and activities, and they demonstrate a commitment to the school.
  • Great teachers are masters of their subject matter. They exhibit expertise in the subjects they are teaching and spend time continuing to gain new knowledge in their field. They present material in an enthusiastic manner and instill a hunger in their students to learn more on their own.
  • Great teachers communicate frequently with parents. They reach parents through conferences and frequent written reports home. They don't hesitate to pick up the telephone to call a parent if they are concerned about a student.

What No Child Left Behind means for teacher quality

The role of the teacher became an even more significant factor in education with the passage of The No Child Left Behind law in 2002.

Under the law, elementary school teachers must have a bachelor's degree and pass a rigorous test in core curriculum areas. Middle and high school teachers must demonstrate competency in the subject area they teach by passing a test or by completing an academic major, graduate degree or comparable course work. These requirements already apply to all new hires.

Schools are required to tell parents about the qualifications of all teachers, and they must notify parents if their child is taught for more than four weeks by a teacher who is not highly qualified. Schools that do not comply risk losing federal funding.

Although the law required states to have highly qualified teachers in every core academic classroom by the end of the 2005-2006 school year, not a single state met that deadline.

The U.S. Department of Education then required states to show how they intended to fulfill the requirement. Most states satisfied the government that they were making serious efforts, but a few were told to come up with new plans.

Next page: How parents can advocate for qualified teachers

How parents can advocate for qualified teachers

Over the next decade, schools in the United States will be faced with the daunting task of hiring 2 million teachers. We know that high-quality teachers make all the difference in the classroom. We also know that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find them and keep them. Twenty percent of new teachers leave the classroom after four years, and many teachers will be retiring in the next 15 to 20 years.

Recommendations from the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future

In 1996 the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a private bipartisan panel, made several recommendations for ensuring that every classroom has a qualified teacher. Among the recommendations were the following key points:

  • Raise professional standards for teachers.
  • Improve salaries and working conditions.
  • Reinvent teacher preparation and professional development.
  • Encourage and reward teacher knowledge and skills.

Implementing these recommendations, however, is a slow process, dependent upon legislation as well as increased funding from both the federal and state governments, and a will to implement changes at the school district level. Parents can work together to keep the superintendent, their school board members and their state legislators focused on the goal of having a high-quality teacher in every classroom.

Additional resources

Give Kids Good Schools
This Internet-based campaign, a project of the Public Education Network, makes it easy for parents and community members to lobby government officials to take action to improve the quality of teachers.

Resolving Conflict With Your Child's Teacher
A concise resource from Scholastic on effective ways to deal with differences in opinion between yourself and your child's teacher.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
This organization provides information on voluntary advanced national certification for teachers. Learn more about the program and how you can encourage teachers in your school to obtain National Board Certification.

The following books have information on teacher quality:

McEwan, Elaine K., 10 Traits of Highly Successful Schools, Waterbrook Press, 1999
This book provides concrete tools and an abundance of resources on how to evaluate teachers and schools.

Cooperman, Saul, How Schools Really Work, Catfeet Press, 1996
Written by a former superintendent, this helpful book provides easy-to-follow steps for evaluating and improving schools.

Bennett, William J., The Educated Child, Simon & Schuster, 1999
What is a good education? In this guide, in addition to learning the signs of a good school and warning signs of a bad teacher, you'll learn what good schools teach and what you can do to improve your school.

Intrator, Sam M., Stories of the Courage to Teach, Jossey-Bass, 2002
This book is a collection of short, eloquent essays written by teachers from the heart. Full of passionate stories, the essays reveal why teachers teach and the challenges they face.

Next: Jockeying for teachers