Is There a Secret to Being a Great Teacher?5 min read

Yesterday I watched a teacher lead a math lesson to his group of inner-city high school students, and the only way to describe this man as he stood at a whiteboard explaining how to determine the angles of a hexagon is ‘magnetic.’ His students, who were loud and on their feet only seconds before his lesson, became glued to his every word. They leaned in, asked questions, and even provided strong answers when he asked for them. There was something about the way he talked that caused his students to listen.

I once had a co-teacher who could lead a book talk for hours with kids who all proclaimed to ‘hate books.’ There was something about the way she structured groups, prepared thoughtful discussions, personalized book choices for students, and could sit in silence while students formulated their responses that made discussing reading in this class an experience embraced by almost everyone. She didn’t have a specific curriculum she followed or an exact formula to get this kind of student engagement, and yet she was one of the most successful reading teachers I’ve ever seen.

I know a teacher who is loved by every student in her school. This teacher has kids begging to stay in her class after school (though she’s wise enough to not always let them). Kids feel safe to approach her about issues going on in their lives, and this teacher is almost unanimously voted to give the commencement address at graduation every single year. Uncoincidentally, this teacher’s students are on average more successful than all other students in the school. There is a correlation between the relationships this teacher builds with her students and their academic success.

These are all great teachers.

Is there an intangible quality to great teachers?

So here’s the question: are the teachers from these 3 examples, and all of the other great teachers in schools around the world, uniquely gifted to be great? Are some people born with qualities that suit them to be the kind of teacher who stands apart from everyone else and can engage students at a different level?

I think that’s a good question. I also think it’s one I’m unable to fully answer.

However, here’s my take. I think great teachers take on many forms, and there is not a specific attribute that designates someone as one. Some teachers are great because of their depth of the subject matter they teach and how they are able to deliver it in an understandable way. Some find greatness in their ability to prepare, and have found a structure that works for most of their students. Others center their work on relationships first, and relationships become the catalyst for deep engagement and learning.

Great teaching is a spectrum.

And yet, while the traits of great teachers widely differ, I believe there is something they all have in common. Based on all of the phenomenal teachers I have taught alongside and worked with around the world, I think (and feel free to argue with me on this) that the common denominator for great teaching is having a strong, clear, high-level purpose. Ask one of those teachers who you consider to be great (or reflect on yourself and your own ‘greatness’) what drives the work that they do, and you will most likely hear a clear answer immediately. I asked my mother, who was an incredible educator for decades, what drove the work she did as a school leader, and her immediate response was that she wanted to create an education experience that met the needs of her specific students.

I asked that great math teacher what drives his work and he said it’s to help disenfranchised students achieve the success they are capable of. I asked the phenomenal relationship-building teacher what her purpose is, and she said that she wants to be the teacher for kids that she never had.

The common denominator for great teaching is having a strong, clear, high-level purpose.

These are all different purposes, but all of them are clear and defined, and rooted in something greater than themselves. Researcher Angela Duckworth says the secret of success is having a “purposeful, top-level goal.” When teachers have deep purpose for their work and they know why they are showing up every day to do the difficult, often undervalued, complex work of being a teacher, they are willing to do what is necessary to improve their work.

They research, practice, and risk failure to find new ways to engage students in discussions about books. Purposeful teachers often carry an extra spark in their speech when talking about the subject matter, which can lead to that magnetism. They give some of their emotional energy to their students and train themselves to become listeners and supporters as much as deliverers of content. Their purpose leads them to greatness.

I don’t think being a great teacher is something you are born with. I think great teaching is something that happens when you have a purpose for your work, and as a result, that purpose radiates from your being when you step into the classroom

Check out my video on what I think makes a teacher great.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.