1. Great teachers show a genuine interest in their students
At the very beginning of the school year, set the precedent that you care about students and their interests. Have your students fill out detailed student interest surveys on the first day of the year, and spend the first night reading the surveys to learn about each of the students you’ll be teaching. Then, find ways to weave what you’ve learned about your students into casual conversations - letting them know that you took the time to read what each student had to say. Make it clear from day one that your class isn’t about the teacher, it’s about the students.
However, don’t only use the beginning of the year to get to know your students - continue to learn about their interests throughout the year! Imagine what a student thinks if you’re super excited to see them and learn about them during the first few weeks of the year, and then slowly you stop engaging with them over time. Students don’t understand that you’re simply exhausted from grading 6 inch stacks of paper every night and teaching 35 kids all day - they’ll just assume you don’t like them anymore. Be a great teacher by showing that you’re interested in every student and their interests from the first day of school until the first day of summer.
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2. Great teachers are involved
What’s your favorite activity? Do you like to knit, read, watch movies, or play sports? Great, now take that and make a club or a team that meets either before school or after school. If you’re only available one day a month, that’s fine! While it’s ideal to meet or practice at least once a week, it will still be a treat for students if you can only meet once a month. By showing that you aren’t just a teacher, but someone who has interests and passions that you’re willing to share with your students, you can become someone truly special in their lives. Those who join your club or team will talk about how fun it was to spend time with you after school, and before you know it, participation will increase.
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3. Great teachers make parents and families an integral part of the class
Parents are generally hesitant to trust - you steal their children from them for 7 hours a day and all - but it’s vital that you build trust with families. Towards the beginning of the school year, organize a fun event that will get all the families to gather together. Throw a potluck or a BBQ, have a Students vs. Parents kickball game, or host a multicultural night where the families come together to share more about their heritage. Let this be a time where parents see just how much you care, and use it as a place to share a message with all the families about what you hope to accomplish. Let parents know that the success of their students depends on a team formed between teacher, family and student. Throughout the year, continue to make an effort to include parents in all that you do in the class - keep them well-informed and have an open invitation for parents to come into class to help, observe, or learn. Have open conversations with parents, and let them know that their voices are heard and important in making decisions that impact the class.
4. Great teachers find out what every student wants to achieve in their life, and helps them build a plan to get there
Design a lesson that will help you to find out each student’s hopes, goals and dreams for the future. Once students have shared their thoughts in writing, take the time to sit down with each student and his or her parents to discuss what everyone can do to make sure the goals are met. Start with a plan for the upcoming school year, and build it out until you reach the point where that student is successful in the career of his or her choice (15-20 years down the road). Telling your students that they need to work their hardest to reach their dreams isn’t enough. They need to know without a doubt what it will take to get where they want to go.
5. Great teachers know how to build intrinsic motivation in their students
You should know what students want to accomplish in their lives. Once you have this information, build intrinsic motivation in your students by guiding them towards being confident and having a strong belief in themselves and their abilities. If Jorge wants to be an engineer, a job that requires math skills, hang up that 95% he got on the last math test on the wall. Show him that you believe he’ll be an engineer, and then every time he does something that’s moving him closer to this goal, point it out. “Jorge, the way that you took your time and really thought through all of your ideas before deciding how to proceed is exactly what engineers do every day. I can’t wait to see what you’ll accomplish in your work as an engineer.” Before you know it, Jorge will know that he’s going to be an engineer and will be motivated to do all it takes get there.
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6. Great teachers are always available for support and advice
Early on in the year, make it known that you will be there for students if they ever need any help, support, guidance or advice. Keep your door open before and after school, and speak to a student if you sense that something is wrong. Often times, students just need someone to listen to them - be an active listener and try to understand what’s going on. Most importantly, always get them the help they need if you aren’t fully equipped to deal with the situation yourself.
The most impactful teachers aren’t the ones who make students laugh and feel happy when they’re having a good day. They’re the ones who can tell when something is wrong and offer support. Be someone that students seek out when times are tough by making yourself available and demonstrating on a daily basis that you truly care about every student in your class. Be patient, be compassionate, and be available.
7. Great teachers hold high expectations and never accept mediocrity from any student
If there’s one specific quality that separates a great teacher from a bad teacher, it’s the unwavering expectations they place upon their students. Great teachers expect excellence from each of their students, and are never okay with a student giving them less than their very best. Bad teachers expect their students to simply complete their work, and are quick to make excuses for why the work wasn’t high quality. There are so many reasons why John always misbehaves, why Angela isn’t doing her reading, or why DJ’s story is only two sentences long. Those aren’t reasons, they’re excuses - never be okay with any of them.
If you want to be a great teacher, you need to stop making excuses for your students, and you need to let it be known that no excuses from students will be accepted. Though some may take longer than others, all students will eventually rise to meet your expectations if you hold them high. The beauty of high expectations is that your students will soon be working at a level that they previously thought impossible, and they’ll start to gain confidence. With confidence comes a belief that they can achieve their dreams, and with that belief you’ve given them the most powerful tool possible.
8. Great teachers design lessons that have a lasting impact
Your lessons should be designed with the future of each child in mind. Before planning a lesson, think about what the lasting impact of that particular lesson will be. Is it enough to stand at the whiteboard and simply explain how to go about solving a certain type of math problem, or should you do more? Great teachers design lessons with the goal of creating a learning experience that will always be remembered by the students in their classroom. Think back to the great teachers you’ve had in your life - I bet that you can remember learning experiences from their classes that still help you today.
9. Great teachers teach students how to succeed
There are no standards for the subject of success, but that doesn’t mean students don’t need explicit instruction on becoming successful. Recognize this, and supplement your classes with lessons on how to become successful. A good friend of mine recommended teaching students John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, and said that it worked well with 5th graders and could easily be modified for any grade level.
Teach your students about the traits of successful people, and discuss how we can all begin to show these traits in our daily lives. Have them read biographies to learn from the mistakes of those who failed before them, as well as the decisions that led to success. For most people, becoming successful is elusive - equip your students with the traits and the skills they’ll need to achieve their goals.
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10. Great teachers emulate other great teachers
Which teacher do you remember the most? Who do you point to for helping you become successful? What did they do that made them such a great teacher? Now do what all teachers do best, and steal their ideas! They say that great teachers are great thieves, so feel free to steal the teaching style of an amazing teacher you’ve had in the past. Think about how that teacher would act in a particular situation and try to channel your inner Mr. Johanssen or Mrs. Schmidt to reach your students.
*The beauty of being a teacher is that every year is another chance to improve, to learn, and to be great. We already know that this upcoming year will be plagued with unexpected events, difficult situations, and sleepless nights. Don’t let the hard times prevent you from becoming great - stay strong, believe in yourself, and work hard to give every student the education they deserve. If all else fails, just try your hand at acting and pretend to be another teacher (it’s worked for me on more than one occasion). Did I miss anything? If so, let me know in the comments!