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Great teachers? How do you know?

a fellow history guy, recently asked a simple question. It’s one we’ve heard before:

What principles define great teaching?

But Dave tweaked it in a way that I like. He’s asking the question but wants to break the answers down by sorting responses by who answers it. How do students respond? What do parents say? Teachers? Administrators? And while I’m sure that data exists out there somewhere, I haven’t seen it. (But if you know where that sort of info sits, I would love for you to share in the comments.)

So. An interesting question. Especially since I don’t really fit into any of those categories. But here’s what I’m thinking right now . . . on a slow Monday afternoon without any snacks in sight.

A great teacher wants to learn
I’ve seen too many teachers who settle in and never read books or journals in their own content area. Don’t listen to podcasts or watch TED talks. They don’t belong to any professional organizations. They don’t have a PLN or subscribe to blogs or visit educational websites. They only attend professional development sessions when required by building administrators or when they need to renew their license.

A great teacher is always learning. And, no, they don’t have to do all of these things. But I find it difficult to understand a social studies teacher who doesn’t enjoy learning more about social studies and history stuff.

A great teacher is willing to change
I also have worked with teachers, and entire departments, that seem unwilling to do things differently than what has always been done. “This lesson has always worked, no reason to change it.” Or “I didn’t need technology when I was in history class so my students don’t need it either.” Or “This article, published in 1982, is still current enough.” Or “There really isn’t any reason to ask kids to analyze primary sources or to solve problems. They’ll get that when the get to college. What they need right now is basic content knowledge.”

Okay. Maybe it’s the lack of snacks this afternoon. Maybe I’m a bit cranky. But seriously, people. A great social studies teacher creates learning experiences that maneuver kids into the driver’s seat and then gets out of the way. The world of teaching social studies is changing because it’s good for kids. It’s okay to jump on the band wagon.

Most important? Great teachers are empathetic to the world that our kids live in.
The world many of our kids come from is very different than the world we live in. Poverty. Hunger. Moving from one house or apartment to another. Single parents. Boyfriends or girlfriends of single parents moving in and out. Abuse. Not enough stuff to read in the home. Too many video games rather than conversation. English as a second language.

This is one I continually need to remember. Our kids come to school from so many different places. Often times, the thing that kids really need is not the ability to analyze an 18th century photograph. What they need is a relationship with an adult who clearly cares about them. Sounds cheesy. But I’m convinced it’s true.

And I’ll add another element to Dave’s question:

What is the best way to encourage and support those principles that you believe make for great teaching?

So whatcha thinking?

Dave would love to hear what your thoughts. So head over there, post your thoughts, then copy and paste them back over here. I’m curious.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amanda Jessee #

    I would summarize all of those categories in one word: passion. Passion for people. Passion for content. Passion for learning. Passion for helping others be their best. Passion coupled with COMpassion can change the world.

    February 3, 2014
    • glennw #


      I love your last sentence! Changing the world is really what teachers do every day. Thanks for the comment.

      Enjoy the snow day and stay warm!


      February 4, 2014
  2. Love the last criteria on empathy!! I find this is the number one sign of a great teacher. It means the teacher sees students as individuals and respects them as humans. And it’s the best way to counter against the all-to-common ‘teacher burnout’, in my opinion. Once we stop being empathetic to the individual lives of students, then teachers descend into anger and bitterness, which can only lead to burnout.

    February 3, 2014
    • glennw #

      Teaching is so incredibly difficult – trying to balance so many things at once. But, I agree, if teachers can continue to see students as the reason for what they do, a lot of the other stuff falls away.

      Thanks for the comment!


      February 4, 2014
  3. Great post Glenn. I especially like the last point – how teachers must remain empathetic to the world they come from. This is so crucial as a teacher, and it’s something I catch myself forgetting every once and awhile. I think we teachers get wrapped up in all our classes, lesson planning, and grading that we forget the crucial elements behind being a great teacher.

    Thanks for sharing!

    February 4, 2014
    • glennw #

      You’re right. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day that we can forget the bigger issues.

      Appreciate the comment!


      February 4, 2014

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