Unearthing the Teacher Within You
Would I be a good teacher?
Because for all the talk about the need for reform in education, it is the dedication of good teachers that will make the most difference in a child’s life. A 1997 study by the University of Tennessee came to the unequivocal conclusion that good teaching matters. More than anything else, the skill and quality of the teacher influences the academic success of students.
But choosing a career in teaching, noble as it may be, is a daunting prospect for many people.You may be picturing a classroom of thirty to forty students and asking yourself, “Do I have what it takes?” You may even have had a bad teacher or two in your time and are scared of ending up like him or her. You don’t want to become a schoolwide joke, or be another one of those teachers who quits within the first few years because you just can’t hack it.
So with doubts swirling in your head, you’re searching the internet and asking yourself something like “Would I make a good teacher?” or Is teaching a good career choice for me? Should I pursue this path?
Ultimately, these are questions that can really only be answered in hindsight. However, there are a number of factors that good teachers across the board possess. You can look to these traits when deciding whether teaching is the right choice for you.
Motivations for wanting to teach
Education researcher John Hattie, according to The Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching, has found that good teachers are passionate teachers. Passionate about the subject they teach, the students they reach, and education in general. They come into the classroom every day because they want to make a difference, and that is why they succeed in making a difference.
Think back for a minute on your own school experience. Who were your favorite teachers?
Chances are, they were the teachers whose enthusiasm for the subject they taught could make the driest topic exciting. They were the teachers who made you feel like you were important to them. And chances are also high that those same teachers were the ones who you learned the most from during your school career. Maybe they were even the teachers who made you want to consider becoming a teacher yourself.
So, part of answering the question of whether or not you’d make a good teacher is asking yourself what your motivation is for wanting to teach. Do you have a passion for your subject? Are you wanting to spread the gospel of math or history or reading or whatever your preferred subject is to the masses of unsuspecting schoolchildren? That’s a good sign. If you love children, either of the elementary or high school age, and your driving mission is to see them succeed and thrive in life and in the classroom, that’s also a good sign.
But as good a sign as it is that you’ve got that spark of passion, that’s not all you’ll need. Passion is good, but it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be a great teacher. There are still other factors for you to consider.
Intellectual depth of a good teacher
Being smart and knowing your subject is one of those factors. In the same way you can be passionate about music but not play an instrument, you can also be passionate about teaching while not knowing a thing. This won’t get you very far in the teaching profession. Good teachers know more than a little something about the subjects they teach. The best teachers know quite a lot.
A report by The Sutton Trust aptly titled “What Makes Great Teaching” reviewed over 200 studies about teaching. Among the report’s findings was the obvious: Good teachers know their subjects. After all, you can’t teach what you don’t know.
So good teachers have breadth and depth in their subject matter. But it’s more than that. Good teachers have enough knowledge to be able to pinpoint exactly why students aren’t understanding a particular concept and therefore, can more easily correct the problem. Still, knowing the problem doesn’t help if you don’t know the answer, and that’s where having strong content knowledge comes in. A teacher with a broad base of knowledge can pivot on a dime to explore the unexpected. A teacher who knows less will be tied to the lesson plan, unable to deviate at all even when the situation calls for it. And if you’ve ever had a teacher who taught like that, as if they were reading from a script, you can see why good teaching requires more than that.
Emotional intelligence of a good teacher
Speaking of which, knowing when the situation calls for deviating from the lesson plan is also connected to another skill that good teachers have...emotional intelligence.
Besides being passionate and smart, it helps if you have some degree of emotional intelligence. Having emotional intelligence, according to Psychology Today, means being aware of emotions, both your own and others, and being able to control and manage them. A classroom is full of multiple personalities and struggling learners; having a strong awareness of those undercurrents and knowing how to address them gives teachers a leg up.
As teacher Deborah Loewenberg Ball puts it in a New York Times article entitled “Building a Better Teacher”, “Teaching depends on what other people think, not what you think.” Being able to figure out what those “other people”, aka your students, are thinking and feeling will make you a stronger teacher. Teachers who can “read the room” and adjust lessons accordingly have both emotional intelligence and are more likely to be good teachers.
Having emotional intelligence will also help you relate to your students and their needs on the individual level. Students that sense you care about them and are receptive to their needs will be more receptive to your lessons. Hence having a high degree of emotional intelligence is a quality shared by many good teachers.
Preferred work style/environment of a good teacher
So let’s say you’ve got all of the characteristics described above. You’re smart, emotionally intelligent, and passionate about education. Does that mean you’re all set?
It’s a very good start, but there’s still one more very important piece of the teaching puzzle. Good teachers create an environment where learning can happen. In other words, good teachers manage their classrooms. A classroom in chaos is a classroom where learning can’t happen. Students need to be able to hear the teacher in order to learn; in the face of constant disrespect and disruptions, learning suffers.
In his book “Teach Like a Champion 2.0”, author, Doug Lemov, describes the actions good teachers take to create that ideal learning environment. Some people think of the ability to teach as something you either have or you don’t; it is the idea that good teachers are born, not made. They think of teachers as having some sort of indistinct aura, giving them a natural authority that students can’t help but respond to.
And no doubt many good teachers perform these actions unconsciously. They have a confidence and “teacher sense” that guides their classroom behavior. But through hours and years of observation, Doug Lemov was able to see patterns in the way good teachers manage their classrooms.
Lemov lists sixty-two “techniques”, about twenty of which pertain specifically to building a strong learning climate. It turns out good teaching is not an indistinct quality some teachers have and others don’t. Good teaching is made up of quantifiable actions, whether the teacher undertakes them deliberately or not.
What Lemov’s “techniques” boil down to is that good teachers manage their classrooms by more than just making their expectations clear. They set up classroom routines to mirror those expectations and make sure students know how to follow them. And, with their emotional intelligence, they are able to create a bond with their students that is both warm and strict.
The temperament & personality of a good teacher
It turns out good teachers don’t necessarily fit into any one personality category. The Los Angeles Times conducted a review of the 100 most effective teachers in the L.A. area and found that good teachers could not be put into a box when it came to personality. There are good teachers who tend to be quieter, and there are good teachers with personalities that bubble and fizz. More important than personality is that the teacher has the qualities discussed above.
There is one caveat to this non-rule, however. A 2004 study conducted by the University of Seville in Spain found that introverted teachers were more likely to burn out. In some ways, that’s understandable. Introverts don’t thrive on social connection like extroverts do; they need some quiet space to process their emotions and thoughts.
Does that mean if you’re an introvert you won’t make a good teacher? No, it just means that introverted teachers need to know their strengths and what works for them. Good teachers who are introverts have learned to structure their classroom and day in a way that complements those strengths. It's the introverts who lack that emotional intelligence regarding their emotional needs that end up overwhelming themselves and burning out.
How badly do you want to be a teacher?
If you’re reading this article and doubting whether you have all the skills and knowledge enumerated above, don’t throw in the towel yet. Even if you’re not completely up to snuff right now, the mere fact that you’re reading this article demonstrates that you have potential.
The most important thing right now is that you have the desire and the passion to teach. Although you may not be ready yet to step into the classroom, you can use that passion to start turning yourself into the great teacher you know you can be.
The skills of a good teacher don’t have to be innate: they can be taught, like most things in life. That’s why teacher education programs, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level exist.
So you’re feeling weak in the content department. That’s easily remedied: an essential feature of teacher education programs is subject specific class requirements. You can also continue to study and explore on your own. Remember, a good teacher is always learning.
So you’re not sure whether you have the emotional intelligence to deal with or guide a class. Research has shown that emotional intelligence can be learned.
So you’re not positive you have that “natural teacher” command. If you take Doug Lemov’s word for it, command of the classroom is a skill that can be honed too. Don’t expect to walk into the classroom and magically be teaching straight out of a TV special. And don’t avoid teaching because you don’t think you have the ability to walk into the classroom and mezmerize the students with your mere presence. If you study the actions of good teachers and practice emulating them, you too can become a great teacher.
Instead of asking yourself “Is being a teacher a good job for me”, perhaps the question you should be asking yourself is whether or not you want teaching to be a good job for you, and if you’re ready to put in the work to make it happen.
And if the answer to all the above questions is yes, then please do your future students a favor, and get started! Somewhere, there’s a classroom whiteboard just waiting for you to write your name on it, and a group of students who don’t even know just how much they need a teacher like you.
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Emotional Intelligence. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/emotional-intelligence
Green, E. (2010, March 06). Building a Better Teacher. Retrieved February 15, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html
Hen, M., & Sharabi-Nov, A. (2014, May). Teaching the teachers: emotional intelligence training for teachers. Retrieved February 14, 2018, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262450290_Teaching_the_teachers_emotional_intelligence_training_for_teachers
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What makes great teaching? (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2018, from https://www.suttontrust.com/research-paper/great-teaching/
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