What makes a great teacher? 

The same teacher can be remembered with fondness by one student and with frustration by another

A friend posted her fourth-grade class photo from a public school in New York state on social media. As was the standard for the time, the 1970 photo showed 35 kids in the class, all of them crisp and coiffed for school picture day. Girls wore dresses and boys sported ties, and the beaming teacher donned pearls and a pastel wool suit.

Then, I began reading the comments about the class: 

The meanest teacher I've ever had.

She was not mean. She was just strict. You learned you times tables, didn't you?

She was the best. 

She was the worst. 

She made me love math.

I never learned fractions because of her. 

Whether students remember a teacher with fondness or frustration depends on a lot of factors, including how much a student liked the subject matter.

My favorite teachers were always flippant and predisposed to students who shared that trait. My most challenging relationships were with teachers who didn’t make wisecracks or appreciate them and whose classrooms had the solemnity of High Mass.

I once asked college freshmen about their favorite teachers. A student asked whether I meant the teachers she liked the most or from whom she learned the most. We often assume they are one and the same, but are they?

My own preference for subversive teachers didn’t mean I didn’t learn from those who revered the rule-book.  I never felt that liking my teachers was a prerequisite for learning from them.

I had several grim teachers in my Catholic high school who were highly effective teachers. (And who were much beloved by classmates who preferred structured classrooms with firm controls on conversation.)

I read several pieces over the weekend about what makes a great teacher since Saturday was World Teacher’s Day, which is celebrated abroad more than in the United States.

The BBC asked its readers what they consider the No. 1 trait of great teachers, and the answers were:

They’re inspiring. (31%)

They’re funny. (25%)

They make the subject fun. They explain things clearly. (Both were top rated by 16% of respondents.)

They’re a good listener. (12%)

The online platform Brainly also asked people how they felt about their teachers. Seventy-two percent said they had teachers they remember for having had a positive impact on their lives; 19% of those impactful teachers taught elective classes such as art or music, 18% taught math, 17% science, and 15% taught English. In the Brainly survey, friendliness, patience and approachability emerged as the top teacher attributes.

Your thoughts? 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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