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Examining 5 overlooked qualities of a good teacher

February 28, 2019 by Brandman University


When you think about some of the most effective teachers you’ve had, there are likely a handful of fundamental characteristics they had in common. These instructors were probably adept at classroom instruction and verbal communication. Perhaps they were also organized, creative and great listeners.

We’ve come to expect these competencies from the educators in our lives. But when it comes to the truly outstanding teachers—the ones who go above and beyond to make lasting impacts on each of their students—what is it that sets them apart?

We canvassed a group of seasoned education professionals to glean their insights on some unexpected qualities of a good teacher. See if their wisdom can help guide you as you journey toward your own career as a prized educator.

5 qualities of a good teacher you might not know about

Every instructor is slightly different, but the best ones often share these qualities

1. They promote a growth mindset

The ways we learn to confront challenges when we’re young can have an important impact on the way we view obstacles as adults. Psychologist and researcher Dr. Carol Dweck wrote a book on the concept that explains people develop either a “growth mindset” or a “fixed mindset” in their youth.

Those who shrink in the face of challenges, Dweck writes, have a fixed mindset. These individuals may view intelligence, creativity and personality as elements that are set in stone when each of us is born. For this reason, simply encountering obstacles can be enough to convince people with a fixed mindset that they’re incapable of overcoming them.

The best educators, though, help foster a growth mindset. Students with growth mindsets view the same elements (intelligence, creativity and personality) as characteristics that can be cultivated over time. As such, they don’t see failure as an option. They perceive obstacles as opportunities to improve and learn—they may even seek out challenges and become more engaged when facing them.

2. They’re able to meet students where they are

Every student is different, so teachers need to accommodate that. This is something Steve Sonntag, part-time teacher at Connecting Waters Charter School and Spanish and English tutor for Wyzant, feels strongly about.

In addition to some fundamentals like offering continued encouragement to students and praising them regularly for accomplishments, Sonntag emphasizes the importance of teaching to different levels within the same classroom. Every class, he says, will have students who take to the material at different speeds.

“Teachers need to be patient, because all students don’t necessarily learn as quickly the first time they are introduced to new information,” Sonntag explains. “Teachers need to be flexible when a majority of the students are not understanding the information.”

3. They understand the importance of cross-curricular teaching

When it comes to effective teaching, Brandman University professor of education Dr. Kimberly Greene warns against the natural tendency many of us have to silo different subjects. She says viewing everything students need to learn as separate, unrelated disciplines is counterintuitive to how things actually work in the real world. And great teachers realize this.

“Math and history and science and literature are all a beautiful combination of each other. This leads us into the unmitigated value of cross-curricular learning,” Dr. Greene explains.

Cross-curricular instruction draws upon content and skills from numerous areas to create one cohesive learning experience. This can help students learn how to connect what they know with what they are learning, a skill that has become increasingly important. In fact, cross-curricular instruction is at the center of the Common Core State Standards for teaching—a set of high-quality academic standards that education programs like the ones at Brandman University align their goals to.

The best instructors will use cross-curricular teaching with young students. “Developmentally, young children are constantly trying to make sense of the world around them,” Dr. Greene adds. “By infusing any particular topic of study with another, we give students a greater opportunity to make genuine connections to their authentically lived experiences.”

4. They’re committed lifelong learners

Some of the most effective educators are those who are committed to lifelong learning. “When teachers improve upon their practice with new knowledge and skills based upon best practices, student achievement will inevitably increase,” offers Erica Leahy, Director of K12 Programs at Brandman University’s School of Extended Education. She adds that continued education helps teachers improve their ability to address students’ challenges and create an environment that supports all learning styles. 

There are two important aspects to effective professional development, whether an educator chooses to attend a workshop or a seminar, participate in a conference or enroll in a full-blown course.

“Gaining new skills and understanding is important,” Leahy says, “but so is the reflection side of it.” At times, it may be helpful to involve a peer or a mentor. Inviting someone to observe you and offer suggestions can impact student achievement and may correlate with overall job satisfaction for instructors.

“The teachers who stand out to me are the ones who are willing to say, ‘I still have work to do. I still have something to learn,’” Leahy offers. “If a teacher is in discovery mode, it can be contagious.”

5. They have a future-forward outlook

Ample time spent in the education industry has enabled Dr. Keith Larick, chair of Brandman University’s Doctor of Education (Ed.D) in Organizational Leadership program, to zoom out and examine the bigger picture of education. Dr. Larick is clearly moving in the right direction, because he was named Professor of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators in 2018.

“We have been making incredibly slow, frustrating progress,” he says of the industry at large. “Things we were doing 15 years ago still haven’t bubbled up as general practices. We’re still tied to the textbook.”

His forward-thinking mindset is one reason Dr. Larick has played such a pivotal role in the design of the Ed.D program at Brandman University. Technology, for example, is something he feels should be incorporated heavily in every school, district, college and university. This is true even for students entering kindergarten.

“For them, the written word is too slow,” Dr. Larick explains. “That drives the structure that should go on in classrooms.”

What kind of teacher will you become?

With these overlooked qualities of a good teacher in mind, you can now venture forward in your own journey toward teaching with some particular skills that you’d like to hone. As you begin to research various degree programs that can help you achieve that goal, you may find it helpful to look ahead and determine which type of educator you’d like to become.

Because teaching credential requirements can vary, you’ll want to be sure you’re committing to a program that will guide you along the right path to achieve your career goals. Visit Brandman University’s teaching credential guide to learn more about your options.

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