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Special Feature

What Makes a Good Teacher!

Schools in Liberia and many countries around world, including the great United States will begin classes this month. Like many parents, I hope each kid; including mine will get the perfect teacher. And by perfect teacher, parents are looking at “good teacher.” That’s simply because, studies have shown that the single most important factor determining the quality of the education a child receives is the quality of his/her teacher.

But what really makes a good teacher! It seems everyone has an opinion about what makes a good teacher — teachers, parents, the government, City mayors, and other politicians. Many times, when we attempt to identify, or define qualities that make a good teacher, we rashly omit the views of students.

During one of my research projects in Teaching and Learning, I found out from students that there’s more to a teacher than great test scores. In a random survey in the United States, many students said they liked teachers who step “outside the box” of the typical teaching structure. “The way the teacher I like teaches makes the lesson down-to-earth and interesting. We also talk about how the lesson is important to us,” said a 9th grade student during one sampling exercise in 2008.  Another student said his favorite teacher always tied the lesson to students’ personal goals, which motivates students to see the personal connections to each lesson’s goals and objectives.

In an era where politicians are clamoring for teacher’s accountability through a series of standardized test, it is important to begin asking what makes an effective teacher. That’s because, in promoting quality teaching and students’ success, it is necessary to pinpoint qualities students like in a teacher and methods that motivate students to learn.

What makes a good teacher! As I considered the question, I turned to one graduate text book, (chapter one of the text, Education Psychology -Slavin, R. 2006 – Education Psychology: Theory and Practice. 8th Edition) that documents real life stories of teachers. One story that caught my attention discussed the challenges Ellen, a new teacher experienced. The story of Ellen illustrates what many new teachers – including myself and others experienced at the onset of our teaching career.

As I read Ellen’s story, I visualized myself – a first year teacher anxious to reach my students, and always trying to identify strategies to meet the needs of diverse students, but still developing basic classroom management skills. In my first year as a teacher, like Ellen, I lacked the supporting strategies to mold my teaching strategies to enable me achieve my teaching goals. Unlike Ellen, I had a few years of teaching experiences, and had lived among people from different demographic, but I was only beginning the great course in Human Growth and Development – Education Psychology.

The truth is that many new teachers are usually excited to get into the classroom, but they are not fully aware of the challenges in the classrooms – standing before a large group of students from different socio-cultural backgrounds and diverse academic levels, and differentiated learning styles.  Like Ellen, many new teachers come into the classroom with the knowledge, but without the skills to efficiently communicate their knowledge to the students. As a first year teacher, I had minimum practical understanding of what it takes to continually search for strategies to motivate and make a difference in the lives of my students. In spite applauds from my teaching mentors, whenever I felt I hadn’t met my teaching goals, I became disappointed and wondered whether I was or would ever be a “good teacher.” These frustrations are probably a few reasons why many (new) teachers leave the profession, which is not as bad as sometimes the setbacks and disappointments students experience in the process.

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However, as I continued to research for strategies to become a good teacher, I was fascinated by the section in Education Psychology (Slavin, R. 2006,) “Can Good Teaching be Taught (p. 1)? The section reinforced my motivation – good teaching can be learned. The section on good teaching states: “Some people think good teachers are born that way. Outstanding teachers sometimes seem to have a magic, a charisma that mere mortals could never hope to achieve.” (p.5).   Prior to reading the section and discussing the content with my mentors, I always thought good teachers were indeed born. After reading the section and recognizing that good qualities, including showing [personal] interest in each student, demonstrating enthusiasm, and establishing a caring/loving environment for learning were some basic interpersonal and communications skills that are “magical” qualities  that make a teacher good, I felt elated. The section continues, “An outstanding teacher does nothing that any other teacher cannot also do- it is just a question of knowing the principles of effective teaching and how to apply them.” (p.5)

Reflecting on qualities that a good teacher possesses, and looking back on my early days, I am grateful to Oldman King (aside my parents), a private tutor hired by my parents to prepare us for school. Whenever I think about the momentous influence “teachers” have on the lives of students, I feel greatly indebted to the late Oldman King – a good and effective teacher.  Oldman King, an old man, slightly stoop, came to teach us every day with a smile casing the wrinkles on his face. In his hand, he delicately carried his worn out, but cherished teacher’s lesson plan book. In his books, he had different materials for each of us – four students of different age groups and academic levels. As I look back on those days, I can honestly say that Old man King came to our home with a sense of purpose. He carefully chose the teaching strategies, teaching program and adjusted them to our individual needs.

Though I feared math, Old man King never wavered. Neither did he batter my already low esteem in the subject. I would plead with Old man King to remove math from my studies, while he never agreed, he also didn’t refuse my request. His response was always a smile, pick up the chalk with his callous hands, and say, ‘Let’s try this,” while scribbling some simple math problems on the blackboard- problems I could easily solve as a way of boosting my confidence.

I always sought to permanent solution to my math dilemma. So one day, I went home and dug into an old truck lying in the corner of our home. When I opened the truck, I saw tons of books left by former Peace Corps (Mary Pat, Richard Kraemer, Diana, etc) who had served in my home town in the sixties and seventies. I pulled out one of the books that had mathematical figures, and ran to my teacher who was on his way to tender his garden. “Old man King, Old man King, now I will know math. Please put this book in my head so that I can know math,” I screamed while racing to my tutor with a text book larger than my arm. Old man King’s response was a weary smile. He took the book, turned it over, and in his hoary tone exclaimed, “Multiplication, division, fraction… ehn!”  Evidently, Old man King sensed my (childish 5 year old) desire to overcome my challenges in math, a subject that my brother did effortlessly. In spite the diversity of his four students with different academic levels and interest, it is apparent that old man King firmly believed that teachers shouldn`t forget that all students, no matter race or gender have equal ability to study and learn. Most importantly, giving students confidence and what student learn is less important than the learning process itself.

Additionally, each student has different learning styles.  Some can learn things easily while others need to spend more time over a given task. That`s why it is advisable for a teacher to know his students individually so that he can remember what kind of problems they have and find the right way to help them. That is what Oldman King practically demonstrated.

Aside the text book definition of ‘what makes a good teacher,’ there are many things that can make a teacher great – some of the qualities can be defined, while others remains amorphous. All of these qualities are essential. If you have d been a student, or sat in a classroom to carefully observe teaching and learning, you will agree that a good teacher is someone who creates interest in studying, doesn`t underestimate the students, has equal expectations of success. Most importantly, a good teacher enjoys being a teacher and doesn’t see the profession as a job, but a platform to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Teachers have important roles to play in the education and development of each of the students they meet. In addition to subject matter knowledge and skills, building the self-esteem of students help students to become better achievers in the classroom. Encouragements and building students’ confidence by setting them up for success and providing positive feedback along with a system of rewards and praise are important tools for both teachers and parents to help students become successful.

Think about yourself, when you are ridiculed all the time, do you feel encouraged; do you feel confident that your output will be embraced, or appreciated? When you are ridiculed, or battered all the time, do you dare being creative? I know that the more confident you feel, the better you feel about the task at hand and your ability to do it. In the same way, when a child is feeling good about themselves, it’s much easier to motivate them to become to become academically proficient.

In my years as a student and a teacher, I have come to appreciate that an effective or good teacher sees teaching as a form of parenting. The good teacher will therefore use the values of good parenting in many situations, including caring about the wellbeing of each student, knowing when to be firm and when to give in when necessary. The fact is good teachers, like good parents; know their students’ problems, insecurities and potential. In addition to subject matter knowledge, good teacher will establish a healthy loving environment for learning, show enthusiasm with students, and take personal interest in each student. Most importantly, a good teacher will use positive words to encourage students, even when the students do not meet expectations.

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