What Makes a Good Teacher?

By Arnie Cohen, Head of School

Since I have recently hired a mid-year replacement for a third grade teacher, I have been giving much thought to what makes a great teacher, particularly what makes a great elementary school teacher. Despite all efforts to quantify a great teacher through mastery tests and hoops for certification, despite advanced degrees and lots of professional development, the core of a great teacher is what springs from within. It is first and foremost someone who teaches children first and the subject secondarily. By this I mean someone who takes the time to get to know the individual children in a classroom – their needs, their family life, their interests, their likes and dislikes. Students who connect emotionally with their teacher and teachers who reciprocate that connection will be on the path to a strong bond that will sustain them throughout the school year, especially when the subject matter gets tough or repetitive.

A great teacher needs a well-developed sense of humor, an ability not to take themselves or what they are teaching too seriously. They need to understand that what is being taught is two-fold: a love of learning and an understanding of the processes of learning. After all, most of the facts that are taught in the classroom can be found online.  So what are elementary students learning in school? They are learning processes such as reading and computing; they are learning about human relationships in social studies; and they are learning to observe the world around them in science. The overarching goals are to achieve the ability to read, observe, compute and think critically and to be good citizens as well.

How does a great teacher teach? She encourages; she cajoles; she stretches the student; she demands more. All the while she is filled with excitement and praise for what the student is achieving along the way. She models the right way to learn something new and she models what to do when things do not go right the first time. After all, few of us get everything correct at first attempt.

One of the best teachers that I ever hired sent me a tape of her doing a science experiment that didn’t go so well when the teacher modeled it, but in an almost mystical way she was able to turn what looked like it was going to be a disaster into a critical discussion of why the experiment didn’t work. Throughout the whole mess, she was able to laugh at herself, regain her composure, and work through an analysis with her students and to do the experiment perfectly on the second try. Arguably, her students learned so much more than if the activity had gone well on the first attempt.

An outstanding teacher inspires by her passion for learning. Whether she has a book or a calculator or a paint brush in her hand, she is dedicated to learning something new.  No one can be a great teacher without being a great learner. That great teacher wants to know everything from why worms wiggle to how the Romans learned to build arches and conveys that excitement day in and day out throughout the school year.

So how can I tell when I have a great teacher?  She is invested in the success of her students; she creates unique and interesting learning experiences for children; she is full of fun and humor; she wants to know what parents are thinking and how to engage them in their child’s learning.  She knows deep down inside that their failures are her failures, too. A great teacher is in love with learning and she is in love with her class; their success means everything to her.

About Arnie Cohen:

First and foremost, I am a teacher.  I have t aught on the university level, high school, middle school and elementary school.  I have spent 39 years in independent education, and I am currently the Head of School at Pacific Northern Academy in Anchorage.  Previously I served as Head of School at both Green Acres School in Rockville, Maryland and The Lamplighter School in Dallas, Texas.  Originally from Pennsylvania, I received my bachelor’s degree from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA and my masters and doctorate degrees from The Ohio State University.