Top 5 traits of the best teachers

“My name is Prince and I am funky”


The defining trait of Prince is that he is funky but what are the traits of the best teachers?

There is a body of research on the qualities of effective teachers (see here for example). However, this is not that kind of post. Instead, it is a subjective argument based upon the type of teacher that I would like to be and the type of teacher that I like to work with. Please feel free to differ in the comments.

The top five teacher traits are:

5. Organisation

The best teachers are rarely late to lessons nor do they have to nip out to do some last minute photocopying. They have a clear idea of what they are going to teach, even if it does not fit exactly on to the school’s lesson plan proforma. These teacher tend to not miss deadlines for assessment data, reports etc. unless those deadlines are unrealistic. Being organised is a sign of respect for yourself as a professional, for your colleagues and for the children that you teach.

4. A genuine interest in the subject

I am fascinated by physics, maths and science more generally. I see myself as an ambassador for those subjects. This means that I do not have to organise daft poster work or card sorts or playing about aimlessly on computers. I have faith in my subject; in the fact that it is intrinsically interesting. So I don’t need to put a wig and lipstick on it.

A genuine interest in your subject is a difficult quality to fake. But it can and must be nurtured over time.

3. General Intelligence

All teachers need a sufficient level of general intelligence (IQ). General intelligence has two components; fluid and crystallised. Crystallised intelligence is knowledge of the world. It is critical for primary teachers, who are usually generalists, to understand the common misconceptions that children have and to not perpetuate these (I wonder how many primary school teachers understand the cause of the seasons). Yet all subjects interact and draw upon other subjects to an extent. It is not OK for a PE teacher to talk about forces and get it wrong. And it is wrong for English teachers to proudly exclaim that they were never any good at maths.

At the heart of good teaching lies effective explanations that often use analogies and draw upon examples. All of this needs good general knowledge.

Fluid intelligence – raw processing power – is needed to deal with the complexity of parallel tasks that teachers are required to perform. Over time, a lot of these routines become automatic yet explaining a tricky concept whilst simultaneously monitoring for understanding and listening to feedback is always a challenge.

2. Subject Knowledge

One of the reasons that I am so suspicious of discovery-based approaches to teaching is the moral hazard associated with them. If a teacher is not confident about his subject then that’s okay, the thinking goes, because we are all learners here together. Not only is this a recipe for confusion, frustration and misconception, it generates a lack of respect for the teacher. Children can tell when you don’t know your stuff and it’s not a good look.

1. Humility

This is critical for a number of reasons. Firstly, we are all taught nonsense when we train as teachers and part of the process of becoming more effective is to abandon this along the way. If you wrap your ego into your practice, however, this becomes difficult. Pride makes it hard to let go. You start to view criticism of a teaching method as criticism of you as a person. This makes people emotional and militates against a cool and objective evaluation of what does and does not work.

Humility also guards against the temptation to hold court rather than teach a lesson. Many teachers who are inadequate in their personal lives draw emotional support from a sea of adoring faces. If this comes from telling jokes, anecdotes, discussing the football and at the expense of learning maths or English then the students are bearing the cost of this emotional support.

Finally, humility helps you accept negative feedback rather than dismiss it. It allows you to evaluate test scores and wonder what you could do differently next time. It means that you can take a phone call from a disgruntled parent and be open to the possibility that they might have a point.

What’s not on the list?

Notably, I haven’t said that great teachers must ‘love children’. I’m not sure what that really means and I think it can lead us into error; particularly the error of using the kids for emotional support. However, a good teacher should certainly not dismiss students’ questions or concerns with a high hand and I think that’s related to my comments on humility. An arrogant teacher is inclined to wave students away whereas a humble one will try to understand the issue.

Fundamentally, I think we misconceive teaching when we define it in emotional terms. It is a quintessentially intellectual vocation. The best teachers demonstrate this fact, daily.

And a little bit of funkiness is fine, too.


34 thoughts on “Top 5 traits of the best teachers

  1. the cause of the seasons.

    a good example. i told a woman at church, in the kitchen, about it not long ago. using my left fist as planet earth and a pencil in my right hand parallel to the “polar axis” for emphasis, with an invisible vertical pole running through the invisible “sun” from floor to ceiling. she seemed to get it pretty well but said she hadn’t known it before.

    now, that might be good or bad news. but the thing *is*. this is one of those social- -activist types. who’s always going on, at length, about… well, whatever aspect of stuff-everybody-knows is important to her that week. in her case, global-warming looms large. for somebody else, right about now, in another church much like ours, it’ll be black-lives-matter. gay marriage. what have you.

    nothing *i* go to church for happens when these people open their mouths to speak, but that’s what they think church is for and i’m not going to try to talk ’em out of it.

    back to this one example. i love her and she’s great with the kids… a much bigger part of church for me than preaching the obvious to the bored, and so well worth putting up with her. but, again. on global warming, in particular. our subject isn’t even pretending to be any kind of *leader* in this arena: drives everywhere, eats meat, all that high-carbon-footprint stuff that serious eco-warrriors do without.

    no… she seems to believe she’s doing somebody some good just talking about how various nation- -states and suchlike entities *should* act… precisely *because* the topic is currently beaten uselessly to death in mass-media. dear god, save my from your church, sez i.

    doesn’t even know as much astronomy as an inquisitive third-grader, but wants to help spread the pro-science “mindset” anyhow…

  2. Whilst I know nothing about your own teacher training, Greg, and can’t comment on anyone else’s programme, I know that I make plenty of mistakes, sometimes look back and wish I had made different decisions in supporting trainees, and frequently wonder whether there are better ways of doing things, but I’m pretty sure I largely avoid teaching nonsense.

    Best wishes

      1. I suspect this doesn’t reflect the current situation. It’s certainly not the feedback we get from our NQTs. At some point a blog post setting out what we do cover might be a good idea; that would give anyone interested, and particularly experienced teachers, a chance to comment on what they do and don’t like about our course and hopefully paint a clearer picture. I think teachers quite often assume that all ITT is like their own ITT experience, and I know that is not the case because mine was largely useless in terms of preparing me to teach well and the one I work on is very different. Best wishes.

  3. As a parent of a teen, as well as a teacher (since 1982)… taking up your point about “loving children”… it’s not about that as much as it is about “loving to spend time with this age group”. Teachers should choose the age group they want to focus on and become experts in knowing about and dealing with that particular stage of people. I have two sisters who are experts in Early Childhood whereas my area of expertise is Adolescence. They don’t understand my choice… their choice would drive me balmy. However, regardless of a teacher’s age group focus… all teachers must have a deep understanding of how students learn and grow – how children learn to read – how children learn to think. It’s surprising how little that high school teachers can know about teaching literacy and yet we are ALL teachers of it! Thinking about all this… your list of 5 just isn’t sufficient… there’s a lot more to being the sort of teacher I want for my child.
    Regards, Deb

  4. I completely agree with your list, and I’m terrified of new ideas that suggest content is no longer important to learning. I was told recently that, as a history teacher, my only learning goal should be critical thinking. “Nobody will remember anything about the content of your courses (world wars, etc.) after they graduate anyway.” I fear we’re comfortably creating a culture of ignorance. Yes, they can look it up if they want to thanks to the interwebs, but wouldn’t it be handy if all people just *knew * about significant historical events?

  5. There’s a rather egotistical, pompous tone to this article, which could be paraphrased in one sentence: Want to be a great teacher – be like me. I’m left wondering how much subject knowledge you actually have about humility?

    1. I think when we read stuff on the internet, the tone can be misread. Kevin, I find your comment a little harsh. A blog is for expressing an individuals thoughts and opinions. Greg makes the point that his list is subjective. Is there something on the list you disagree with?

    2. One of the best teachers I ever had was a git. However, he had the other characteristics Greg lists in spades, and that covered for his lack of humility and personal touch.

      And I’ve had lovely humble teachers who were useless.

      One characteristic that Greg leaves out, that I was talking about with fellow teachers even today, is “Presence”.

      If you can’t walk into a room of students and command it, then you can’t teach very well. You have to be prepared to stand in front of people who may not like you very much and say “This is what you need to do”.

      A down side of that is that there a few people, mostly adults, who really can’t stand people who can do that. Who put themselves out there, knowing full well that sometimes it is going to go very badly. Those people generally don’t like effective teachers. They call them pompous.

  6. Look back on the teacher from whom you learned the most. We’re they like that? Chances are they were not the same as the one from whom I learned the most. Whilst defining the characteristics, are you expecting all good teachers to be the same? My best teacher was a crusty old deputy who rarely left his desk. His defining characteristic was how far he allowed us to push our learning beyond what would have been considered our level as eleven year olds.

  7. I agree – if you want robots taught by robots, and in an ideal world at that. Yet another scientist who yearns for teaching to be as precise as his academic discipline. You are clearly cut out for management and will probably go far.

    But you still have a vast amount to learn about the real job in the real world.

  8. I would add that as a teacher, you need to keep learning and you need to keep immersing yourself in findings about the subject or area you are teaching. Some aspects of my teaching have changed over the past 30 years because of or thanks to professional development.

  9. This is quite a limited choice of characteristics I’m quite taken by the evidence in favor of the neo-traditionalist approach, but the fact that you don’t don’t include compassion, agape, or embracing ‘loco-parentis’ as part of what it is to be a teacher, seems bizarre. I can’t help but think that you are describing the virtues of a poor 18th century lecturer who would have been walked all over by Kant (sic). Genuinely these do not seem like the traits of a, or the best teacher but one of a middling conformist.

  10. This is not to say to these traits aren’t significant, but they are not all necessary (accept in an very general sense) and certainly not sufficient. By the way the final section ‘what’s not on the list’ is a classic example of a ‘false dilemma’ which I might direct towards the head of Critical Thinking. Giving a damn about the kids does not necessarily involve some ‘hippy’ I just want them to be happy, knowledge doesn’t matter, I only give a damn about emotions, rot. A classic ‘you’re only being emotional, dear’ non-argument. Giving a damn, matters, caring matters…To put it bluntly, I care about my students, I want to give them the best start in life, I view them as akin to my son, daughter or anything beyond. That is why this list is at best, only a start. Giving a damn, being ’emotional’ is not anathema to good teaching, but the ‘existential’ fuel which drives it. Check out David Hume on the ‘is/ought’ fallacy or Aristotle’s Ethics for further details.

  11. i tried leaving this in its natural place. honest.

    /*We should stop trying to mess with children’s emotional states.*/—the *heart of the matter*. there are plenty of true and useful things worth talking about. *none* of them involve, for instance, *my* opinions about *your* feelings. moreover: this is *obvious*.

    “spiked” sux. i won’t be back if i can help it.

  12. I have no idea whether you are right about your top five characteristics. My own guess is that humility, while desirable, might not turn out to be so important (what about the teacher who is driven to improve in order to be the best teacher—in other words driven entirely by ego?). And a sense of humor is always listed by students as important to them, so it may be important for teachers to have.

    However, what is undoubtedly important is subject knowledge. My favorite example is the definition of prime numbers. Most math teachers define a prime numbers as a number that can be divided only by itself and one (some teachers insert “exactly” or “evenly” after “divided”). The problem with this definition is that it is not clear whether 1 is prime or not. The definition says it is prime, since 1 can be divided by itself (1) and 1. But in order to preserve the fundamental theorem of arithmetic (that apart from order, prime factorizations of natural numbers are unique) then we don’t want 1 to be prime (because otherwise, 6 could be factorized as 2 x 3 or 2 x 3 x1 or 2 x 3 x 1 x 1). That is why the careful math teacher defines a prime as a number with exactly two factors. Most numbers fail to be prime because they have too many factors but 1 fails to be prime because it has too few.

    Here’s my problem, however. The relationship between a teacher’s subject knowledge in mathematics (whether defined as abstract knowledge, or pedagogical content knowledge) and how much students learn is weak. Most of the difference in teachers’ effectiveness is probably none of the above…

    1. I’ve just come in from a staff meeting where we have been told to do certain things to address issues of student under-performance (as perceived by target grades). However, we have already been doing many of those things, because we are generally a bunch of effective teachers (which was acknowledged).

      It struck me that much of what was being advocated was teacher action to compensate for *student* inaction – or at least ‘under-action’. But in my experience, the one is not a substitute for the other. The difference is the level of control which schools have over them, and hence faced with a problem, schools choose the levers over which they believe they have more control, rather than do nothing. But pulling the wrong lever is not a good substitute for not being able to pull the right one.

      I wonder if this is why the relationship between teachers’ knowledge and pupils’ learning is weak – and also why more experienced teachers seem to have taken exception to the list presented in the original post – it’s just too simplistic to think that successful education derives solely or even mostly from the definable qualities of the teacher.

      I suspect that much of a successful interaction depends on the intangible, unique personal chemistry between those involved (I had examples of this today too…) and that try as we might, we are never helpfully going to pin it down further than that.

    2. I am aware that I cannot substantiate these traits with empirical evidence which is why I said they were subjective. The best evidence that I am aware of on teacher effectiveness seems to suggest that effective teachers use some variant of explicit instruction (I’m referring to Rosenshine’s argument about process-product and strategies research and the teacher expertise research described by Yates in the link). Clearly, there will be a lot of confounds. In a school with poor discipline, for instance, the traits I’ve suggested will be outweighed by some strategy for coping with this.

      However, I would make a couple of comments. Perhaps we have different working definitions of ‘humility’ and perhaps I’ve chosen the wrong term. There is a difference between someone who wants to be the best and someone who already thinks that he or she is the best. The former is likely to lead to a person seeking feedback (and we’ve all heard anecdotal tales of highly competitive sports stars who, despite their level of talent, seek feedback constantly) whereas the latter is likely to lead to a person seeking to avoid disconfirming feedback. It is really the receptiveness to, and willingness to act upon, feedback that I am getting at here. I am trying to avoid mentioning ‘mindsets’.

      In terms of teacher subject knowledge then I think that we have not necessarily captured this in the research due to the fact that large-scale, quantitative research tends to have a focus around early literacy and numeracy. Here, it is clear that pedagogical content knowledge is important and this is why we find effects for the use of phonics and so on. However, I suspect knowledge of the definition of a prime number is less crucial. I am aware that there have been attempts to correlate higher level qualifications such as masters degrees with teacher effectiveness but I’m not really sure how much these tell us about the importance of subject knowledge, the quality of these degrees or the relative importance of other confounding factors. I would prefer some kind of direct subject-matter test.

      I am interested in E D Hirsch’s argument about the ‘fourth grade slump’ in reading and how this is caused by a lack of general knowledge. Presumably, we could have two teachers who both teach decoding effectively; one who uses fairy stories and the other who integrates factual instruction. Both will show up as equally effective on a near post-test of decoding / comprehension of stories. So we would need to return later to test Hirsch’s hypothesis. Interestingly, it is the teacher who uses factual knowledge who will need to draw more upon subject knowledge (as an aside, at my primary school we have now introduced specialist science teachers following a successful introduction of specialist maths and literacy teachers).

      Of course, it sounds like I am setting up an unfalsifiable argument. However, such research could be done but it would require quite and investment of time and resource.

      1. I’m new to the blog and am late in replying, but this post is the only one which alludes directly to a problem which I would be very eager to test empirically. (I am not an expert in teacher education, but I have a personal and semi-formal interest; I work as a university lecturer in another field and for various reasons have had close contact with secondary schools for years.)

        I was particularly interested that you chose humility as a desirable quality. It touches on something which I’ve often observed: that school teachers seem much more arrogant and confident in their own beliefs than they ought to be (both because they overestimate their abilities and because they are less interested in self-improvement).

        I’ve known many people who are now teachers, before and after they undertook teacher training. Before they were trained, they expressed the doubts and hopes you’d basically expect (“I think I could do this but I’m not sure if I could do this” — classroom management was one thing people were often apprehensive about, but it was often other things too). After they were trained, they expressed high levels of confidence in themselves and their teaching strategies, even when it wasn’t clear whether they had chosen the best approach or whether they were capable of facilitating that approach. A close relative was a deputy principal for many years. The biggest problem they faced when it came to implementing new schemes (some good, some bad, some neutral!) was that “the teachers all think they know everything”.

        You can label aspects of this phenomenon more formally (eg the Dunning-Kruger effect or the Peter effect), but as I understand it those labels don’t refer to a particular kind of general disposition but rather to an absence of knowledge. I don’t even think it is “self-efficacy”, as referred to in some of the literature. I also don’t think it is “confidence” in the sense of “presence” before a group, eloquent speaking, or whatever. It is broader than that. The unhumble teachers I have encountered ranged from excellent to incompetent teachers (in my amateur assessment). Reading this type of blog also seems to illustrate that such teachers do not support any particular philosophy of education; they are just people who think they are right all the time, and that everything they do when teaching is essentially correct and justifiable.

        This is a genuine generalisation, and I have no evidence for it, but a) it’s something many people I know have encountered again and again; and b) if teachers have no clear idea of their own abilities, and constantly overestimate them, surely that makes training and professional development far harder than it ought to be, which leads to many further problems. The (again in my limited judgement) weaker teachers I have encountered didn’t seem to be completely in the thrall of inaccurate theories, although they were probably influenced by them to some extent. Some of them didn’t really care about the job, which is hard to control. Others didn’t seem intelligent enough, which is an obvious problem but also very difficult to target. But more than that was the idea that they were doing fine, that they never needed to change, and that any change was unwelcome.

        So, when I read critical educational blogs such as yours, I tend to look particularly for empirical data which could verify my personal experiences (and I think it should be Australian or at least Anglophone, as culture would presumably be very important here). The article about reading at suggests that “self-rated ability to teach phonemic awareness and phonics had no relationship with demonstrated knowledge”, but that’s a very limited survey. I would like to see a much larger survey (and if you can point me in the direction of one, I’d appreciate it).

        I have various theories about the excess in self-image (and this may be the wrong term, but I’m trying to refer to “lack of humility”, and, since I am most interested in proving my hypothesis empirically, perhaps it’s best to try to use something which psychometric tests could attempt to measure).

        1. Teachers are constantly told (or at least, they are told by many people, particularly those people who do teacher training) that they are valuable and decent people. (Or there is the reasoning: teaching is a good thing to do; I am a teacher; ergo, I am a good person.) They believe this even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

        2. Teachers constantly fail, whether in big or small ways. For example, they try to teach a certain thing, but people don’t learn it correctly. They ask someone to do something, but they refuse or do it in a different way to the one that was intended. Those two things must happen tens of times, every day, to all teachers. Consequently, they adopt delusionally high levels of self-image to prevent their constant failures seriously damaging their sense of self.

        3. It seems contradictory that so many teachers report that their training was worthless (including many of the ones I’m thinking of here) but that, after they are trained, their self-image seems to increase. The teachers referred to in the study by Stark et al also seemed to suffer from this kind of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the culture of the community of teachers promotes satisfied complacency rather than a desire to improve. Perhaps the process of telling people what to do and being in a position of authority all the time makes self-image unrealistically high. Perhaps teachers, having been subject to so much meaningless material in their training, eventually tune it all out and assume that their sense of what is correct is the only thing that can be relied on.

        But I’m not satisfied with any of those theories, and perhaps it’s just the teachers that I (and Stark et al) have encountered. Working at a university (and not in an education faculty), it often strikes me that academics are partly motivated by a conflict: the arrogance of feeling smart and being in a position of intellectual power, versus the fear of being considered stupid or a charlatan or being publicly criticised. Perhaps school teachers have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

        This turned out to be a long and perhaps meaningless ramble, but I remain very interested in the subject…

      2. An interesting comment. I would like to suggest an alternative interpretation: teachers are constantly subjected to 1)intense criticism of their work, methods, results etc. and 2) to such an unrelenting torrent of initiatives about how to do it better that if there was not a degree of bullishness, then they would dissolve into despair. In other words, the traits you describe are just a coping mechanism.

        If you then add the impossible workload and time pressure of the job, if there were no defence against it, then it would simply be too much to bear. I will add that we have also been subjected to so much contradictory information over the years that no one really knows where to begin with it. The only remaining strategy is to work out what works for you and defend it in the face of constant criticism.

        Most of the teachers I know are actually pretty insecure about what they are doing, and are pretty self-critical too – but they work in an profession where admitting it would be career suicide. I think we would be better conceding that learning is still such a mysterious process that we actually *are* better doing it however (seems to) work.

  13. Humility most certainly a desirable quality. Just watch how quickly those who think their talents are being wasted dismisses the child who is experiencing difficulty. I would something else; namely, the C level graduate might not only have humility in spades but, this likely translates into an equal amount of empathy. I often wonder about the Finnish experience where those without a Masters degree need not apply and cannot help but wonder what they might be missing. This could be especially true if those who assert that the best leaders often graduate with no more than a C average.

  14. I would say that very near the top would be reflection. I think this is crucial to being a good teacher. Being able to reflect on all manners of the profession leads to growth in so many areas. I find that newer teachers and certainly student teachers are very good at this for obvious reasons but sometimes, teachers who have been in the profession longer can find it harder. Or – they reflect, but perhaps don’t adapt their practice as much. Just what I’ve found in my experience. I also agree that teachers do not have to ‘love children’, although I do firmly believe that good teachers have a love or passion or belief (however you want to define it) for the worth of children and their education and future.

  15. Fundamentally, I think we misconceive teaching when we define it in emotional terms. It is a quintessentially intellectual vocation. Couldn’t agree more – glad to see someone else saying outn loud.

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