I come from a family of teachers. Three of my sisters are teachers (including my twin sister) and my two younger brothers are teachers as well. I often think that teaching has come to me and not the other way around. And since September 2003 the first time I stepped into a classroom as a teacher, a lot of things have changed in the field and a whole new set of skills have come to the fore. Web technologies are now part and parcel of the teaching pedagogy and since the pandemic they have even taken center stage.
Teacher professional development is another area that has witnessed a huge change as well. Using video conferencing tools, teachers are now able to take part in global conferences, webinars, and workshops anywhere anytime. Learning has been freed from its geographical shackles and moved to the cloud creating limitless options and possibilities for ongoing growth and development.
With all these changes taking place all at once, it becomes fitting to revisit the idea of what makes an effective teacher and inquire about the professional characteristics and qualities of good teachers. Several scholars and educators have profusely discussed these characteristics and some of these discussions have even made it into peer reviewed academic journals and books.
As I was going through the literature written on the topic, one particular study stood out to me which is that of Robert Walker. In his 15 years of teaching, Robert Walker engaged his students that included pre-service and in-service teachers, in discussions around the characteristics of effective teachers. Going through the amassed data, Mr Walker noticed recurring themes in students’ responses all of which had to do with personal attributes and qualities of teachers and not professional or academic characteristics. Effective teachers, as Mr Walker concluded from students’ responses:
“• came to class prepared
• maintained positive attitudes about teaching and about students
• held high expectations for all students
• showed creativity in teaching the class
• treated and graded students fairly
• displayed a personal, approachable touch with students
• cultivated a sense of belonging in the classroom
• dealt with student problems compassionately
• had a sense of humor and did not take everything seriously
• respected students and did not deliberately embarrass them
• were forgiving and did not hold grudges
• admitted mistakes.”
To contribute to this ever ongoing discussion about the characteristics of effective teachers, and based on my own experience as a former teacher, current educator and EdTech blogger, I share with you this list of what I believe are the qualities and characteristics of effective teachers.
Effective teachers are enthusiastic. They look forward to their work and have passion for what they do. And because enthusiasm is highly contagious, enthusiastic teachers pass their enthusiasm to their students, a phenomenon that critic René Girard called ‘mimetic or imitative desire‘. In mimetic desire, individuals admire doing something because someone else admires it. As the Center for Teaching and Learning in University of Colorado explained, “students become increasingly engaged with a course and its material to the degree that a faculty member is engaged and enthused by the subject matter”.
2. Growth mindset
Individuals with a growth mindset, as Carol Dweck explained in one of her papers in the Harvard Business Review, are those “who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others)…[and] They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).” The reason why people with growth mindset tend to achieve more, according to Dweck, is because they are not burdened with the perception of being or looking smart and therefore invest more efforts and energy in learning.
Effective teachers embrace a growth mindset approach. They are open to all forms of learning. They view failure and mistakes as opportunities for deep learning and growth.Teaching is a field that is in constant flux. New methods, technologies, and learning possibilities are being created and introduced in an unprecedented pace, requiring teachers to constantly adapt and adjust their teaching methodologies and make the best of the new learning environments. This requires a readiness to unlearn, learn, and relearn. Effective teachers are life-long learners, after all. They are not afraid to ask for constructive feedback on their teaching performance and seek new opportunities for improvement.
Optimism goes hand in hand with growth mindset. Effective teachers look at the world through a utopian but realistic lens. They acknowledge the challenges and difficulties facing them and their students but are always hopeful and optimistic. They view hurdles as catalysts for transformative learning. Their positive outlook on life fills their classrooms with positive energy. Studies also confirm that as a positive attitude, optimism can help enhance teacher’s performance and boost students academic gains.
4. Good Communicator
Communication is one of the fundamental skills in successful teaching. As Bob Hodge stated in Teaching as Communication, “good teaching and good learning alike are so dependent on language and communication that the two are inseparable”. Effective teachers are good communicators. They listen empathically, they know when and how to intervene, and they value students’ voices. Effective teachers use different means to communicate with their students.
They also leverage the power of non-verbal communication intentionally using their corporal gestures to enhance meaning making and boost understanding. Effective communication also means providing students with timely and constructive feedback both written and feedback and creating two-way channels of interaction with students allowing them to actively take part in the communicative process.
5. Empathic listener
Empathic listening is the practice of listening in a responsive way. As Stephen Covey eloquently articulates it in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, empathic listening starts with seeking first to understand, then to be understood. It is one step beyond active listening. When you listen empathically, you are engaged emotionally with the speaker, acknowledging their message, relating to their experiences, and asking structured questions. Effective teachers are empathic listeners. They listen to their students with an attentive and responsive ear, sharing their concerns, and connecting with them at a compassionate level.
An effective teacher is one who facilitates learning by adopting a student-centered approach where students are in the driver seat. Teacher as facilitator monitors the learning taking place in class without intrusion, offers help and scaffolding when needed, and guides students through the whole learning experience. As Galileo puts it, “you cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it within himself” .
Ethics are the bedrock of teaching and effective teachers translate this fact into their daily practice. They model ethical practices to their students at two levels: the relational and the pedagogical. At the relational level, effective teachers share mutual respect with their students and treat them with dignity, kindness and appreciation providing them with equitable access to learning resources. At the pedagogical level, effective teachers adopt cultural responsive and inclusive approaches. They tend to all learning styles and make their teaching accessible to students of all skill levels.
8. Well prepared
Effective teachers are well prepared. They carefully craft their lesson plans taking into account possible eventualities and leaving no room for unwarranted improvisation or impromptu practices. Their teaching is intentional and goal oriented. They come with the best techniques to meet individualized learning needs and to create a supportive learning environment in class.
9. Good classroom manager
Effective teaching is grounded within classroom management. As Robert Marzano , author of Classroom Management That Works, stated “effective teaching and learning cannot take place in a poorly managed classroom. If students are disorderly and disrespectful, and no apparent rules and procedures guide behavior, chaos becomes the norm”.
Being well-prepared can help with classroom management but it’s enough. You can create the best lesson plan and design engaging hands-on learning activities and still can not manage one’s classroom effectively. Why? Because classroom management entails working on a variety of variables including but not limited to dealing with disruptive behavior in class, student-teacher communication, teaching strategies, educational activities used in class, use of classroom space, and many more.