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 every student in their class can and will achieve, they set big goals, 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 plan “exhaustively and purposefully… and maintain focus.” 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; they look at all sides and are objective; and they 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 build relationships with their students. They stay after school and make themselves available to students and parents. 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 the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) laws mean 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 2002 law, elementary school teachers needed a bachelor’s degree and had to pass a rigorous test in core curriculum areas. Middle and high school teachers needed to show competency in the subject area they taught by passing a test or by completing an academic major, graduate degree, or comparable course work. Schools were required to tell parents about the qualifications of all teachers, and they had to notify parents if their child was taught for more than four weeks by a teacher who was not highly qualified. Schools that did not comply risked 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 states were told to come up with new plans.

In 2012, the Obama administration granted flexibility to states on NCLB requirements, and The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law in December 2015. Transitioning from NCLB to ESSA began the following year.

ESSA lessened the NCLB-era focus on standardized testing so teachers had more time to teach. ESSA gave teachers a greater voice in educational decisions, but the “Highly Qualified Teacher” (HQT) regulations were removed. Some researchers expressed concern that the guidelines’ aim to replace “ineffective teachers” is too vague and undefined to be implemented usefully.

How parents can advocate for qualified teachers

Currently there are an estimated 350,000 teacher positions that are either unfilled or occupied by teachers who are not fully qualified. 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. Many teachers experience “burn out” — up to 30 percent of teachers leave their job after five years.

What the experts recommend for the future of quality teaching

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) has become part of Leaning Forward, which made several recommendations for ensuring that every classroom has a qualified teacher as part of their What Matters Now research, recommendations, and efforts to improve teaching and learning across the country. Among the recommendations were the following key points:

  • Develop rigorous qualifications for teachers.
  • Train evaluators to assess teachers and provide meaningful feedback.
  • Ensure the highest-need schools have access to excellent teachers.
  • Encourage and reward teacher knowledge and skills.
  • Provide financial support to educator recruitment programs.

Implementing these recommendations is a slow process dependent upon legislation as well as increased funding from 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.

Resources on teacher quality

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.

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.

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.

What Makes a Good Teacher? by Zagyváné Szűcs Ida Universal Journal of Educational Research 2017

What Makes a Great Teacher?” by Amanda Ripley The Atlantic, February 2010

What Makes a Great Teacher?” by Erin Young Phi Delta Kappa, February 2009

What makes a good teacher?British Journal of Educational Psychology, November 2018

Teacher Effectiveness in the Every Student Succeeds Act: A Discussion Guide“, Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at American Institutes for Research, November 2016