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What makes a great teacher?

Date posted: 15th October 2014

Jane PearceEveryone remembers a favourite teacher. If you’re lucky you will have wonderful memories of many great teachers. Teachers have a unique impact on the lives of the young people who are their students. But because teachers are so important, they also need a unique set of abilities.

Great teachers are those who are able to create and maintain positive relationships not just with their own students but also with colleagues, parents, caregivers, families and members of the wider community. This is often what people mean when they say someone is a ‘born’ teacher; that they have the ability to get along with everybody. But this doesn’t mean that people who are not naturally very gregarious or sociable are not going to make great teachers. As professionals, teachers learn ways to engage with all their students, and ways to relate positively with everyone they encounter in their daily lives.

Great teachers are knowledgeable. They have deep, specialised knowledge of the areas they teach, and are extremely well informed about an increasingly complex world. Students expect their teachers to be authorities on everything! However this does not mean that great teachers believe they have nothing else to learn. Great teachers are also great learners, who understand that they do not and cannot know everything. Rather, great teachers know the limits of their knowledge, and understand the need to constantly research and update what they know about their job and about the world. Great teachers also know how much their own students can teach them.

Great teachers have high personal standards, practising in ways that are socially just and that show respect for the ideas, beliefs and cultures of others. These high expectations translate to high expectations for their students, both in their learning and in how they behave towards other people both in and out of the classroom.

Teaching is an increasingly complex and demanding job. Great teachers know how important it is to keep a balanced perspective about their work and their life, and to maintain their own health and wellbeing. Teaching requires stamina, persistence and resilience. But despite its challenges, it is still the most important and most rewarding job in the world. What other job gives you the chance to help shape the future of the world’s citizens?

Dr Jane Pearce has been a teacher for 40 years, and a teacher educator for the last 25 of them. Her most recent research project, funded by the ARC, explored the practices that enhance the resilience and retention of early career teachers.