Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 3 Years ago
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Much of the discussion today about good schools, classrooms and teachers revolves around test scores, teacher evaluation formats, and the Common Core standards. In this commentary, I want to try to bring back the discussion to what is really important to think about with regards to good teaching and good teachers. Below is a list of twelve qualities of good teachers that don’t get discussed very often, yet are important and relevant to consider as we try to improve teaching excellence. The list is followed by descriptions of each quality, and then some final thoughts. I hope that you find these helpful and interesting. Please share them with others!

What makes a good teacher? A list of one dozen qualities 



  1. Think in complex ways.


  1. Set substantial, relevant goals and work towards them.


  1. Treat teaching as a very human enterprise.


  1. Work hard.


  1. Are usually collaborative.


  1. Motivate and engage students.


  1. Go deeper.


  1. Work with both individuals and groups.


  1. Get and give feedback.


10. Appropriately use a repertoire of powerful approaches to instruct and assess student progress and success.


11. Are self-reflective and developmental.


12. Measure success in many different ways.


 What makes a good teacher? A list of one dozen qualities with descriptions




1. Think in complex ways

Teaching is very complex work. It is never a mechanical, linear process, the same across all classes or among all students, as some seem to think when they put expectations for all teachers into a rigid lesson format. Teaching is and teachers are unique, different, and complex in so many ways.

Students living in rural America may have very different needs, expectations and values than students in a large urban city or in the suburbs. The culture, expectations, and needs of students from varied ethnic, racial, and socio-economic groups often vary. Kindergarten children have very different needs from third, sixth or ninth graders. High school algebra teachers may have a very different approach than teachers teaching calculus. Elementary teachers teach the same small group of students throughout the school year, and usually are responsible for all subjects, while middle and high school teachers may work with over one hundred students each day. End of day teaching is different from early morning teaching. The interactions, expectations and “mix” of each group of students are usually very different. A group of students taking an Advanced Placement course may be very different from students in a traditional high school course or from a group of special needs students. The beginning lessons of a unit may look very different from middle and end of unit lessons.

Teachers themselves are complex, with diverse skills, talents, interests, and motivations. Some teachers are really good at working with young children, while some are strongly subject centered and work best with highly achieving high school students. Teachers also vary in what they teach well and the way they teach best – for example, teachers using project centered, performance based instruction have very different mindsets and expectations, and will teach very differently, from more traditionally-focused teachers.

Teachers also work with many types of students all at the same time. Because of this, they have to manage diverse classrooms effectively, analyze how all students are doing simultaneously, have “eyes in the back of their heads”, and adjust lessons on the spot to accommodate the needs of some or all of their students.

In other words, context, approach, and the “flow” of teaching make it very complex and significantly affects expectations and outcomes.

2. Set substantial, relevant goals and work towards them

Good teachers have a very good idea of what they want to accomplish with their students, and their goals are substantive and important. When asked what are their goals, their answers are often very general and not at all what we usually consider as specific teaching objectives. They often say things like they want their students to be better readers; they want to “open new doors” to reading or to the world around them; they want their students to be better thinkers; they want to improve the writing of their students; they want their students to become more creative; they want their students to think like scientists or historians; they would like their students to have an understanding of historical forces and how they affect us today; they should understand the nature of mathematics, be better logical thinkers through mathematics, or learn how mathematics is used in the real world.

What they are also good at is translating these general goals into specific goals and objectives – daily, weekly, monthly, over the course of a year. They know how to operationalize general goals so that they become actualized in the classroom. While they know how to stay on course towards reaching these goals, they also know when to use the “teachable moment” to deviate into other productive learning directions as well.


3. Treat teaching as a very human enterprise

Today many of our leaders who establish educational policy think of education in very formal, abstract, simplistic terms. For example, for them, good teachers set a goal, give feedback, give tests.

Of course, the reality of teaching is very different. It is about working with human beings with all their diversity, difference, characteristics and qualities. At all levels, the skillful teacher builds relationships with her students and considers the “whole” child. Good teachers are constantly observing and working with students with different talents, strengths, cultures, attributes, and expectations. They often help students in very many ways other than with their academic needs, assignments and school tasks.


4. Work hard

One perception out there on the part of many people who are not teachers is that teaching is easy. Nothing could be further from the truth! Good teachers plan, revise lessons regularly (never give the same lesson twice), often adjust their teaching to new situations, grade homework, papers, reports, and tests, give feedback, learn and try out new ideas, collaborate with others. Many times they are asked to teach a grade level or subject never taught before. When a new curriculum is instituted, they are expected to teach it as their focus along with unlearning the old curriculum!

Good teachers are dedicated to their work, teach and prepare both in and out of school, and work long and hard year-round to make their teaching successful!

5. Are usually collaborative

While there are a few teaching “stars” who work alone, the vast majority of good teachers collaborate with other teachers, professionals, and parents to increase their chance of success and the probability of student achievement. Some individual teachers can make a difference on their own, but most good teachers need the help and support of others to reinforce what they think is important, support students in need of assistance, and continue their goals at other grade levels and in other classes. Good teachers understand that, without the help and support of others, much of what they will accomplish with their students will not happen or will diminish over time.


6. Motivate and engage their students

Good teachers think about their subject, their goals, and their students. But also very important to them is a consideration of how to involve and engage their students in learning. Without student engagement, learning falls flat and is generally unsuccessful. In other words, teaching without engagement is often teaching without learning! Good teachers understand this, and work hard to figure out how, on a daily basis, to engage, motivate and involve their students in learning. Some teachers can do this more easily than others, because their students are more naturally interested and engaged academically. Others have to work very hard to engage and involve their students. In some ways this is the biggest problem for many of today’s teachers – how to find ways to interest, motivate and engage many students in learning in the face poverty for some, abundance for others, information overload and easy access, social media, and new technologies.


7. Go deeper

I still remember my high school American history teacher, but not for the best of reasons. We learned a lot of facts, but little else. When done, I knew a lot of facts about American history, but had little insight into the forces that shaped America, the meaning of the Constitution, or other important ideas. When I got to college, and had an American history course that stressed analysis and interpretation, I was lost (until I got the hang of it).

Good teachers know how to avoid superficial learning and coverage of content, and are able to take their students deeper into what they are learning. Whether students are learning the scientific method, the forces that affected American history, algebra, or health, good teachers provide students with opportunities to find meaning in what they are learning, give them a chance to analyze, interpret, be creative problem solvers, or build understanding. For good teachers, learning is never about just getting information, taking the multiple- choice test, and moving on.


8. Work with both individuals and groups

Good teachers think both about group collaboration and individual students. Many activities are conducted with large and small groups, and good teachers help students to learn how to work cooperatively with others. But good teachers also notice the individual student who is advanced in math, or is very creative, or who likes to debate, or who is a struggling reader or math student. Good teachers may provide special experiences to these students in their own classrooms, or they may recommend a student for a gifted education class, or tutorial help and support, or give information and recommendations to parents on how they might help and support their child.

9. Get and give feedback

Good teachers are constantly finding ways to get feedback on how well their students are learning, and giving students feedback and guidance on how to improve their work. They seamlessly and regularly integrate feedback activities. There may be a writing assignment used to provide guidance for improvement. An end of lesson activity may ask students to summarize what they learned during the lesson and to write two or three questions about what they learned. A short quiz at the beginning of a lesson on yesterday’s learning gives a teacher an idea of what students learned well and are having trouble with. Collecting student notebooks periodically gives a teacher insight into how students take notes and process information.

Good teachers use all of this feedback to sharpen and adjust their teaching, provide guidance and help to students as to how they might improve their skills, and generally assess how well they are doing in helping students to meet learning goals.


10. Appropriately use a repertoire of powerful approaches to instruct and assess student progress and success

Good teachers have in their arsenal of tools a wide repertoire of instructional strategies and assessments that they know how to use appropriately. They vary instructional strategies in order to make learning interesting and appropriate. Many assessment tools – tests, quizzes, projects, performance tasks, self-reflections, short end of lesson summary activities, student observations - are used to get feedback from students and evaluate their achievements.


11. Are self-reflective and developmental

There is this notion out there, repeated often, that teachers should graduate from their pre-service training programs fully formed and ready to teach! That’s like saying that a doctor coming out of medical school should be ready to practice medicine. Nothing could be further from the truth! Let’s not forget that, for doctors, there are required residencies and in many cases post-residency experiences before they can practice medicine on their own. Even then, good doctors keep learning new things and refining their craft. In doctoring, experience counts for something – the best doctors are those who continue to improve and grow over time.

The same is true for teachers. Somehow, in education, it is expected that teachers will come out of schools of education ready to teach. While many may be good at what they do (and many at that point are not), they must continue to learn and grow if they are to become good teachers in this fast paced, changing world we live in. They simply aren’t ready to think in complex ways while they teach, have the repertoire of teaching tools that they need, teach from a specific curriculum, develop strong lessons and units, adapt to new situations each day, build strong relationships with students, or manage classrooms effectively. They will often be given new teaching assignments that require them to work with large classes, with difficult students, or with grade levels or subjects that they are less familiarity with.

Self-reflection and personal development over time also makes it hard to make judgments about teachers in the early years of their career. Some teachers begin their careers with many problems and failures but learn from them, getting better at what they do with each passing year until they become not only good but excellent teachers. Others start well, but progress or improve very little if at all over time.

In general, teachers who make the biggest difference in the lives of their students learn from their mistakes, grow over time, and adjust to a rapidly changing world and profession. If we expect to have good to great teachers, we must build in many opportunities for them to reflect on their experiences, work with master teachers as coaches, learn new approaches and strategies (and even fail occasionally), and regularly collaborate with others.

12. Measure success in many different ways. For good teachers, success with students is very nuanced and not always easily defined. Student growth is defined many different ways. Success sometimes occurs when students become more disciplined, less impulsive, more resilient. Success is sometimes shown through enormous growth academically, but only in one or two subject areas. Sometimes success is when students find their calling as artists or athletes. Some students are successful when they become inspired to learn and begin to flex talents never seen before.

Then there are also the frustrations of failures with some students, who become mired down with personal problems and regress. Some students are simply unreachable, no matter what a teacher attempts with them!

Some students seem to demonstrate little progress, yet come back years later to tell a teacher how he inspired her and changed her life! Some show little progress, somehow but “find themselves” years later and return to school to complete a GED and go on to college and a successful career.

The fact is that the most frequently used current measures to determine success, standardized tests, tell us very little about successful teaching and successful learning. Good teachers can tell you about, and often even show you, the myriad number of ways that their students change, grow, and learn over time.

What makes a good teacher? Some final thoughts.

If you are a teacher, the next time someone asks what you do, and you are tempted to answer that you are just a teacher, remember these dozen reasons why teachers are not just teachers. Teachers are at the same time educators, caregivers, friends, coaches, and managers who make a huge difference in so many ways in the lives of children. They have a tough, complicated job with enormous responsibilities. Instead of the continual barrage of criticism and discontent, we need to understand the difficulties of their work, thank them for the important work that they do, provide them with the best conditions to support their continued growth and success, and congratulate them for the noble, inspiring, and often thankless work that they do for our children and our country.

Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design trainer. He currently continues to address educational issues and volunteers his time in the Philadelphia School District. More of his commentary can be found at ASCD Edge and on his website, www.era3learning.org.

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