The Top 9 Attributes of a Great Teacher

I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” Robert Frost

Who was the first teacher to make you like a subject you really weren’t that interested in before or didn’t think you could understand?

Frog in a jar during Biology_Class  Mine was Mrs. Putnam, my ninth grade biology teacher. I was convinced that I hated science and that I wasn’t any good at it. I was wrong on both counts, but it took Mrs. Putnam to help me see through my biases. How did she do it? Through the #9 attribute of a great teacher. But let’s work our way up to that.

If You’re a Great Teacher…

  1. You connect your material to other subjects and ideas. A great teacher doesn’t teach in isolation but contextualizes the material. When we know how everything’s connected, we’re not only more interested, we’re going to understand the material better.
  2. You possess in-depth content knowledge that keeps evolving. I suppose you could be an outstanding teacher even if your knowledge is frozen in time. However, being a lifelong learner not only keeps your knowledge up-to-date, it also models that core principle of education. Learning is a pursuit for all your days.
  3. You are tuned into your students and aware of when they’re engaged, bored, or confused. And you’re flexible enough to respond accordingly.
  4. You are a creative thinker. When I was working at The Great Courses, the professors who did the best were rippling with ways to approach the subject. You could throw out an idea and they’d run with it, but they also had plenty of innovative ideas of their own.
  5. You are willing and able to change how you teach if it’s not working—to push yourself for an approach that connects the plug to the outlet.

I consider my father one of the best teachers I ever heard lecture. Once he said to me that it is the teacher’s responsibility to make sure the student learns, providing that the student is putting in the effort to learn. Therefore, if the student isn’t getting it, it’s up to the teacher to try a different route to comprehension. The great teachers wear the mantle of this responsibility with pride, even joy.

  1. You understand beginner’s mind and can put yourself in the place of a student—at any level—to shape your teaching around their doubts, challenges, and questions.
  2. You’re wild about the people you teach, be they adults or kids. It’s got to excite you to see your students really get something, but it’s also got to inspire you to work harder when they don’t get it.
  3. You are an amazing storyteller, regardless of subject. It doesn’t matter if it’s calculus or literature, neuroscience or art—the best teachers make us feel as if it’s all part of a fascinating story.
  4. You are passionate about your subject and about conveying your absolute, bonkers-love for it so other people feel just as excited as you do.

And that brings us back to Mrs. Putnam, who was so enamored of biology that she would do anything to ensure that we felt the same way. She opened a very precious door for me, to the understanding that every subject is fascinating in its own way, if you can just pry it open. And behind Door #2: the awareness that I could learn it, too, whatever it was.

Thank you, Mrs. Putnam, and all the dedicated teachers everywhere.

I’d love to hear what you think makes a great teacher—or about your favorite teacher, and the impact he or she had on you.

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Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #30 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” Let’s take a peek at things that go wrong during recording, and some fixes.

Want to make online courses that teach outstanding content well? Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She can help you create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

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