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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

Comments from readers

"A great teacher is one who has a classroom that's safe, and is full of comfortable remarks for the students and parents. All expectations are clearly written, strategies are used to engage the students to work at their ultimate abilities and beyond. College is the goal of the students, whether achieved through academia, trade, and career. The teacher must have the credentials of being highly qualified, which consist of education, experiences, and integrated with strong moral ethics. G. Ross (Phoenix, AZ) "
"Good teachers know how to live with ambiguity. One of the greatest challenges of teaching stems from the lack of immediate, accurate feedback. The student who walks out of your classroom tonight shaking his head and muttering under his breath about algebra may burst into class tomorrow proclaiming his triumph over math, and thanking you for the previous lesson. There is no way to predict precisely what the long-term results of our work will be. But if we have a sense of purpose informing our choice of strategies and materials, and we try to cultivate expectations of success for all our students, we will be less likely to dwell on that unpredictability, choosing instead to focus on what we can control, and trusting that thoughtful preparation makes good outcomes more likely than bad ones. "
"wonderful information, by adopting the above qulities can present qualitative future generation to the nation "
"does anyone know when this article was written? I'm doing an essay for school.. "
"The other thing that makes a good teacher is support from administration. Many teachers do not have it. It is essential. "
"This is great and i agree perfectly with he qualities of the great teacher highlighted "
"Interesting reading but does sound more like a technocrat's view of what makes a great teacher and it seems to tick all the boxes that the politicians, parents and press seem to think. When I think back to the great teachers I had when I was at school the ones who really stood out where the free-spirits who weren't necessarily subject specialists but who had a wonderful way about them when it came to children. This was back in the days before regimented lesson planning and objectives. Unfortunately teachers nowadays (and I apologise here because I'm writing from a UK point of view as I don't have too much knowledge of the US education policy) are expected to teach to tests and cram knowledge into young minds rather than drawing out, nurturing and really educating students. If you wonder why some teachers hate their jobs it's because they are not allowed to get on and actually teach because everyone else (press, politicians, parents) think they know how to do the job better. ! We've all been to school, think of one of the teachers who inspired you. How many of the things on this list would you say they had? Was it something else perhaps that made them "great"? "
"The write up is good like one of the great philopher fredrick niche quote "the you in you makes the you in you wise"so go on with your god work thanks. "
"I been a teacher K-12 and most teachers hate their jobs. Many, far too many, teachers because its very easy work; the pay is very good for what they do; the benefits are awesome (medical). How can you tell I know what I'm talking about? Look at the test results are substandard. Any people who really loved their jobs would do a far better job than what the American taxpayer is getting. Also, why are teacher unions so much against vouchers? Let the parents/childrens go choose their schools. Teachers are very nice but not very helpful but not very knowledgable. We have to get rid of TEACHER'S UNIONS!!! If we get rid of unions you will see a drastic change in the qualilty of American education. Teachers do not giv a damn about chiildren. Most teachers have their children in private schools not in their public schools. "
"Can any1 giv me sum more in4mation about quality of a good teacher "
"backup of students increase the passion of teachers i like to read it because i am also a teacher.. "
"Definitely good information for a student, trying to become a teacher! "
" i can be a great teacher.. "
"It's hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you're talking about! Thanks "
"Interesting post and great sharing. Several things in here I have not thought about before, I would like to use this moment to say that I really love this blog. It has been a fantastic resource of knowledge for me. Thank you so much! "
"This Article is really very helpful to each and every person especially those who doesn't know about interview and frequently asking in interviews by interviewers. After reading this article i can measure my confidential level in interview and also this article help me a lot to improve my staff. Really thanx very much.... "
"Very good tips! I think it is very informative with good stuff in it. thank you. "
"Education:Myths,Realities and Parents' Rights by Linda Taylor Charkin will be published this month and carried by Borders in Burlington, Vermont 05403. It gives parents all the information on what is really happening to, in and with our schools. It separates the myths from the realities and empowers parents to ask the right questions, to help prepare their children and to understand what is happening to American K-12 education. It explains vouchers and school choice, the gifted, talented and bored, teachers who bully students and what can be done about it. It doesn't simply give the problems but it gives solutions that are positive and are working in schools around both in our and other nations/s"
"A 'great teacher' is part of a team. Teachers who are not rated for TAX or standardized test performance, such as fine arts teachers, language teachers, etc., provide learning that supports the performance of regular classroom teachers, yet how will these so-called 'support staff' be rated in the new individualized rating system? Schools whose teachers work as 'teams,' where everyone--from the bus driver who reminds kids not to leave their books, to the principal who sets overall policy--these teals all work together. The fine arts teacher's curriculum, for example, is designed to support the basic curriculum. In all the current emphasis on math and science and the 'basics,' it's important to reward the great teacher who provides broad understanding of 'humanities.' Yet it is the regular classroom teacher whose test scores will qualify them for bonuses as 'great teachers. I want to be sure those highly educated and very special teachers in the humanities and fine arts qu! alify for special recognitions as 'great teachers,' and I want to be sure that teamwork is emphasized in our schools instead of creating individual competition among teachers. "
"Parents know their child best. They can give input as to their child's special learning disabilities or health problems or past behavior issues. But parents are stepping far out of bounds to tell teachers how to teach when they haven't taught a day in their lives (meaning complete control of a classroom), they have a degree in a different area other than elementary or secondary education and they have not read a broad spectrum of research. Would you want an electrician telling your lawyer how to proceed with your courtcase or would you want your lawyer telling the electricion how to rewire your house? This is what it would be like to have a parent tell a teacher how to teach and they think they know what they are talking about because they have a college degree in anthropology or medicine so that makes them an expert in elementary education because they were students once. Do you recognize yourself in this description? Be careful to give input to the teacher on what is usef! ul for her or him to teach your child better. It would probably be better if you as a parent could take input and advice *from* the teacher."
"After more than twenty years Barbara is still at the top of her game, and the reason is obvious in any short visit to her classroom. She loves the infinite challenge of using her agile intellect to spark and enflame the intellects of children, especially five, six and seven-year-olds. She does this, of course, by all means at her disposal: designing projects that would engage the imagination of any age brain, organizing learning centers with parameters that require creative thinking, and teaching as if the mind constructs knowledge, rather than as if one could simply fill it up with knowledge. Barbara loves puzzles, games, and the mysteries of mathematics. She also knows that the children come to her with five to seven years of cognitive development under their belts and that they will learn the most if she designs activities with an infinite range of possible entry points for the wide variety of types of brains in her class. She builds her educational objectives into activities that are playful, challenging, full of surprises and ripe with opportunities for creativity. Barbara is a lover of literature and history. If you were to walk into class and saw Barbara reading to the children, you would see 22 faces fixated on her in rapt attention. She is a gifted storyteller, and using stories not only for their obvious intrinsic value, but also strategically to support the other educational objectives of the day. Fundamental to Barbara’s way of teaching is the assumption that there are not three kinds of students: gifted, normal and disabled. 22 students means 22 different intelligences. She teaches as if each child has his or her own unique social, emotional, and physical challenges this particular year. She sees her job as creating the conditions in which they will grow from meeting those challenges, be proud of themselves and at the end of the day still love to go to school. Barbara assesses the students’ full gamut of developmental needs while they work. A famous De Moss quotation is: “Every minute a child is taking a test, is a minute they could be using to learn.� All of Barbara’s students take responsibility for their own learning because she sets everything up with that in mind. Once, about fifteen years ago, on a visit to her class I watched one of her second graders struggling with a problem and decided to help. Barbara spoke to me after class. I knew I had made a mistake. We have to let kids struggle. Barbara’s students don’t learn about science. They are scientists. The culminating activity at the end of the unit might look like Antarctica Day. As scientists, each group's job is to travel by boat, land, camp, observe conditions and penguins, record findings, return home and present results. Each task of the day reviews skills learned during the unit like measuring temperature, weight and height or decoding nautical signal flag messages or observing and tallying penguin behaviors or playing child-created math games on board ship to pass the time. As children slip into oversized black T-shirts, they become their studied penguins, flapping flippers, collecting rocks or huddling together. Other children are using binoculars from icebergs across the room to tally observed behaviors. When the scientists return home those results are graphed and shared. A year’s worth of work might come together at the end in a dramatic extravaganza where the students put on a puppet show. They have picked the story, defined the characters, created the puppets to represent those characters, and designed the stage and the props. The horse requires two students, of course, because there are four legs… on and on. In short, Barbara was a pro when I first met her and she is a pro today. She never gets bored, because the challenge of engaging each of her unique students each year in each of her unique classes is, to Barbara, infinitely challenging, and infinitely fun. "
"I'm glad to read the positive and negative points about teachers and I'm very sad that the situation of teachers is very bad in Afghanistan. the percentage of poor teachers is higher and the good ones. I hope Afghanistan will have professional teachers too. Zamrir Saar, Mazar-E-Sharif, Afghanistan"
"Helpful and glad that i found it thanks"
"I'm very unhappy with my daughter teacher she repeat the same homework, she didn't send the school notice and the yellow envelope and even she forgot to nominate the student of the month."
"How do we know how great you really are unless we can see you can the progress and success students achieve in your class? It is nice to call me, set high expectations for my kid, know your content, and be able to plan a great lesson. However, where is the proof that my kid gets it and what else are you doing to ensure that he/she gets it? What is your success rate that kids get it in your class?"
"I love the article. Communication is the key. Let the parents know the pros and the cons regarding their children. Surely if the lines of communication are not open (consistently), it will adversely affect the child academically and behaviorlly."
"This is such an important discussion. It seems so basic, but not enough intelligent discourse is happening, and not enough data is being collected. I also suspect that the answers are less complicated that people tend to make them. There is another interesting response to this issue at: her/ Keep up the good words."
"l follow these suggestions in my teaching and want to take more impssive suggestions for welfare of my students ."
"I'm a student and i have a teacher that i like verry much. unfortunately my teacher has no controll of her loud,rude,and disturbeing class . what can i do to help her???"
"A great teacher is a person, who is crazy about his work, who loves and understands those, who he(she) works with, as his own children. It is the one who is strict and cool at the same time, who can support a student, when necessary.It is He, who sees his students through, he knows, if a boy or a girl is ok today or if he or she isn't well and should better go home. Such a Teacher notices each small success of a student and praises him for his efforts. He is the ONE, who sometimes forgets about his own family. A Great Love for those, whom He teachers! He 'feels' them and knows everything about them."
"i am a grandma age 62, and during my childrens school days im contantly communicating withmy chldrens teachers, just for so many reasons and issues. i am leanred and known that to be a teacher is not easy job. if teaching alone with out the real motive of true teaching to impart knowledge(goodone)to chldren and young ones who would be or c ould be a leader(in any aspect of leaderships), and only the intentions of just having a job to earn, you will never be a good teacher and of course never be a great one. as teachers really have to (wether they like it or not)encounter kids children young ppl in a classroom from different race, upbringing, different beliefs,different system or kind of upbringing and mostly different kind of homes, is a real hard task of even communicating to impart what you need to teach and they need to learn. so teaching, if you wanted to be good at it and become one of the greats, is not a matter of just teaching. as the BIBLE SAYS, that what ever you do, dot it good and with LOVE. if you just do it, with out LOVE, it is nothing. so teaching is not just a matter of profession or a degree that you have to paractice. it is a a profession a degree and a vocation mostly. if you have and vocation, you do it as a work of love. and teaching is actualyy is a work of love. if you love you CARE. many students needs care. but hard to do if you are catering to numbers of students. that i swhere the word SACRIFCE comes in. teachers have a great influence to thier students who could be a would be. the influence of the teacher could not end until the student handled became what ever they would bcome in their adult life. if you are the teacher of the famous, the greats, and influentials, as they are you are too. if you are the teacher of the robbers, murderer, the prosties or those a prob. to mankind and society, ask yourself what have you done to the future of these once upon a time your student. you mold, you shape the characters and image of every child, though the parents are somewhat a partakers to this too. but being the looked up 2nd.parents in school, the more hours being together with this kids and young pppls. the teachers paricipation is great in the making of the future of this students. so if you are just studying to be a teacher, just for having a dregree or just haveing a job. pls. dont teach at a school.just keep the diploma at home. cause to be a great and real teacher, is a WORK OF LOVE , A VOCATION AND A SACRIFICE"
"I am a student, and students definetly know what makes a good teacher. All this stuff is right, but almost every job u need to be like this to be a good worker. They need to be fun and less harsh- there are so many serious people, but people in school are not adults, but they turn us into adults faster because some teachers just want they're paycheck. The teachers have to bond and listen to there students so there is less uncomfortability with teachers. "
"The person who said teachers train as much as doctors does not know what they are talking about and making unfounded assumptions."
"This is a great website and all the comments are enlightening. The education problem debate is raging in Jamaica and of course the problem (especially according to the 'campaign' one of a our news media editors) rests squarely with teachers and the schools. The response of May 4, 2009 below, is one I'd like to borrow lock, stock and barrel for sharing with that news media, because it seems like a time and content wheel that requires no re-invention. I am getting from the article that a teacher who is aspiring to greatness will do all the things mentioned in the articles. These may not all be done all the time but all will be done at some time. One very popular train of thought out here is that the schools should be run like any regular business place. I don't know if, under such a circumstance, the students would be returnable input when there is a readiness problem at specific levels. What do great teachers need to be great? Is there a nature component to teacher characteri! stics that is not considered in the article?"
"A teacher should care about every student that enter her door. A teacher should be allowed to look at each student and check where the student is when he or she enter the class. A teacher should not label students but should encourage all students. Students learn at different levels. Teachers should not be stress nor students with testing. But all students should be taught to read. All classes should not be stack, but have different learning levels. A teacher need to have principals that are trained just like the teachers are. A great deal of principals are not train in the field that they are given leadership. Just because a teacher has taught 5 years and from the business world were there are no jobs does not mean they are better that the 15-25 year teacher that was trained in the field of teaching. Some may be great teachers to some but the Greatest teacher in the world is one that will listen, motivate and encourage all students. You have to care about student! s to teach. Parents should take an interest in their children and work with the teacher. My door is always open to my parents. I want my parents to be active in their child's learning. I want and do treat students like they are my children."
"You are describing an 'institutionalized' ideal of the great teacher and not at all what students declare. My greatest teacher was far from structured or began with 'facts!' Also, what is the use of the pronoun 'he' so predominate. What, males tend to be poor teachers? Furthermore, what you are talking about is the perfect little glowing white toothed, perfect hair, never be real blandness that dominates your 'ideal' contrived institutional world. My greatest teacher was a hard rock miner whose rough hands, weathered looking teeth, cheerful disposition, and work ethics made the perfect teacher. Let's get real!"
"Life is full of continuous learning! There are no 'GREAT' teachers, only teachers who are constantly improving! So, yes I take issue with 'GREAT'! As an educator, I am always learning and my knowledge evolves daily, realizing that even the experienced make many mistakes! I pray that I never view myself as a 'GREAT' teacher but rather just as a teacher who did the best that she could!!!"
"I take issue with 'Great teachers communicate frequently with parents.' Great teachers are working hard to prepare their lesson plans and are already overworked. Parents need to take responsibility to contact the teacher on a regular basis and quickly ask how the child is doing. Of course teachers and principals will contact a parent is the students has done something that was very wrong or the child is having a specific learning problem BUT be proactive instead of passive. It always serves us better. And remember, the parent is the child's best advocate, so take that responsibility seriously."
"It says that 'Under the law, elementary school teachers must have a bachelor's degree and pass a rigorous test in core curriculum areas and pass a test or by completing an academic major'. I've known so many new teachers who have completed all the requirement to be called 'highly qualified teachers', and one is my daughte's teacher, but let me tell you this, go to her class, she can't even manage the class, children are all around, disorganize and obviously is not exhibiting expertise in the subjects she's teaching. While my baby's kinder teachers until 1st grade who were so good, love our kids, have dedication were removed just for the reason that'they are not highly qualified' according to the school because they haven't compleated yet the requirements to get a clear credential???? For me as a parent'HIGHLY QUALIFIED TEACHER' does not always follow with how many units in education teachers got! But rather they should have those qualities that makes a Great Teacher like it was mention: 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. Why can't they also consider the years of experience the teacher had in the qualification of a 'HIGHLY QUALIFIED TEACHER' and not only concentrating on the number of units they got or the number of tests they pass! Experience is a BIG BIG plus to be a good, confident, knowlegeable teacher not only in our children's learning but also the effectiveness on how they manage the class. "
"Parents need to remember that any given teacher is only a moment in their child’s life. You, the parent, are the strong hold that is steady for your child and their lifelong teacher."
"how can......for the teacher if there are not complete equipments in the school"
"wow...I don't see how party affiliation has anything to do with the subject. Pres. Obama blasted teachers in his speach even more than the so-called hatemongers on the right. The fact is that teachers and their students are being blamed for our woes as a nation. Most Americans are intellectually lazy. Why should our kids be any different? I go through hell trying to teach my son anything. Obstinate wretch. How about 30 in a classroom?"
"Great teachers are all around us. The problem is that great teachers have the potential to be great in what ever field they choose to work in. Therefore, most don't stay in education very long. Education is extremly low paying considering the amount of education we expect them to have, the amount of continuing education we expect them to keep up with on their own time and with the little bit of money they have. Throw in all of the testing, large number of children in each classroom, higher number of students with behavior/attitude/learning difference issues than every before, and parents who expect 'their' child to be the main center of attention for the teacher at any given moment. Teaching isn't worth the stress, low pay, and forced (expensive and time consuming) continuing education. Great teachers will be great in whatever field they chose to work in, they will leave education and go be 'great' someplace with less stress and more money. If we want great teachers, then we! need to compensate them and treat them like they are great, not the reason for all of our social woes. If you compare teachers to other highly educated professionals such as lawyer's, MBA's, and doctors within our society, you can see what our society values. We value money. People who make money for us, protect our money for us, or provide medical care for us are valued significantly more than those who are shaping the future and taking care of our children each and every day. Yes, Doctors and Lawyer's may need more education to start out in their fields, but by the time a teacher is 6 to 8 years into the field, she has most likey taken as many college classes as a lawyer or even a Doctor. Teachers are expected to continue taking college classes up until they retire. By the time a teacher retires I would expect that they have more time and money invested into their education than a lawyer or doctor ever would. Our society needs to start compensating teachers commensurate! with their level of education and the service they are provid! ing for society at large. We expect teachers to prepare the children of our society to come out of school and change the world into a better place. Our hopes and dreams for the futures of our children are placed in the hands of educators. Our society can't afford crappy second rate teachers that can't find work anywhere else. We need to pay great teachers great salaries, salaries that will encourage great people from other fields that teaching is a field worth working in, when we have a large enough pool of great teachers, we won't have to put up with all the bad teachers. Getting great teachers into classrooms is as simple as creating an environment that encourages more people to want to be teachers, with a larger selection of people wanting to be teachers, it will be easier to get rid of the ones who can't make the grade."
"Great information. Particulary for a new teacher such as myself. I will definitely use as I strive to become a better teacher."
"We in the US do a great job with instilling critical thinking. Unfortunately, especially with integrated classrooms, the best we can teach is lowest common denominator material. Whether you like him or not, is there another Bill Gates in our future? There probably is but I don't think we will see as many as we have in our heralded past. What challenge does a young man or woman have if they can't compete with the best in the schools until they start taking college prep courses? I'm not a teacher, but I talk from experience. I ran a group home for children for some time. My kids went into integrate classrooms and raised hell. They were an extreme distraction, no matter how many aids were there just for them, and took valuable class time from everyone else. Now there is no more special ed and no more honors classes."
"I'm not a teacher, but do you really think a teacher can send frequent feedback to parents, as well as maintain constant, individual contact with everyone? That's too time consuming for what we pay them. We should be real, folks. If they're doing a good job, we shouldn't burn them out with obsessive over-checking. We need to step back and let teachers teach, not micro-manage the parents as well as the kids. That's ridiculous."
"In order to be a good teacher we as teachers also need help from the parents. As a teacher I can only do so much, thats where the parents come in."
"As an aspiring teacher, I see and am told alot about what makes a good teacher. I think the one that has stood out to me is that a good teacher knows her students and their learning styles, and models her lessons based on different learning styles, not just the one she is most comfortable with. Also, I think that a good teacher engages her students, she involves them in class activities, uses hands on activities as a means of learning, and incorporates current technologies into the learning experience for her children. As an education major, I am currently being exposed to alot of technology that wasn't used even in the past 10-15 years while I was in school. The changes are amazing, and to watch the students I observe interact with and engage in the use of technology, it amazes me that we didn't come up with this before now. Also, I think communication between the parent and teacher alone isn't enough. I feel any communication to the parent from a teacher should also involve the child. The teacher and parent may only see it one way, where as the child may have a different view or reasoning of an action or behavior. "