What makes a great teacher?

By Dennis Schulman on

One time a few years back I was considering hiring teachers to expand my SAT prep business. I was thinking of what qualities I would look for and which I would emphasize if I were to train teachers. Knowledge of the subject and the ability to communicate clearly are of course important. But what came to me to be of paramount importance were enthusiasm and fun! If the teacher was enthusiastic about what he or she was teaching, seemed to enjoy teaching and being with students, then I would be more inclined to choose them. I know some teachers get burned out after years of teaching but I would hope, at least at the start, they are enthusiastic about it. I don’t think that’s always the case. I also think it’s quite possible for teachers to maintain their enthusiasm after many years of teaching.

A few years back I saw a performance of Fiddler on the Roof in San Francisco. The actor playing to lead role of Tevya was Theodore Bikel, performing this role for the 1700th time! After performing the same role and reciting the same lines that many times you’d figure maybe he’d just be going through the motions. But his performance was incredibly good, energetic and inspired. It made me think how a teacher teaching the same class year after year can also remain enthusiastic and inspired. Just as the audience is different each night, the students are different each year. And no two performances or classes are the same.

I was once fortunate to witness a truly great teacher at work. His name is Tom Lester and he was giving a workshop for teachers in Rhode Island, where I was living at the time. He went into an elementary school classroom and gave a math lesson to a class of students he’d never met while a group of teachers observed. The students were completely engaged, well behaved, acting appropriately and excited about learning. At a meeting of the teachers after the class, one teacher stood up and said, “that was great but I can’t do that, I’m Italian! I’m much louder and more animated than you.”  Tom explained that he’s from Montana, and is naturally a little less outgoing. But his point to the teachers was, of course, you don’t have to act like him. Your personality and style will make your teaching unique. But there were more universal aspects to his teaching that the teachers needed to learn, particularly how to get the students to show respect to each other, to themselves and to the teachers. That seemed to be a key element in his teaching method.

Another wonderful teacher I had the good fortune to see in action is Arthur Benjamin. He is a math professor at Harvey Mudd College. A few years back I went to a math teachers conference in Redding, CA and Dr. Art was the keynote speaker. A short time before this I had approached a teacher friend of mine and told him that I was going to present a workshop for math teachers in Asilomar in Northern California. I was wondering if he had any suggestions for me. He told me that teachers always like to get worksheets that they can use in their classrooms. I thanked him for his advice but wasn’t too excited about it. With that in mind, I went to see Dr Art’s presentation. It was fantastic! He calls himself a mathemagician – he does incredible feats of mental math as well as magic tricks. He is a very polished performer. After his keynote address, I also attended one of his workshops at the conference, before a smaller group of teachers. Again, he was inspiring, showing teachers how to make math come to life and be fun. He did not hand out worksheets. I listened to the teachers as they left the room, excited by his presentation. That was more like what I had in mind for my presentation. When I gave my presentation at Asilomar some weeks later, I did get some very positive feedback from teachers, especially middle school math teachers. I realized a bit too late that the elementary teachers attending my workshop would not necessarily be knowledgeable about math and some would even be downright phobic! It taught me that I need to go very slowly when working with elementary school teachers – some are not nearly as open or capable in math as many of the elementary school students I’ve worked with. That experience did make me feel that I’d like to work more with elementary school students in math, particularly in mental math and problem solving.

One of the best compliments I’ve received as a teacher was a comment a student made that wasn’t meant to be a compliment. I used to work quite a bit as a substitute teacher many years ago. I usually enjoyed it (although I did occasionally have very difficult classes). One day I was having a particularly good time with a class when one of the boys in the class commented, “I think I want to be a substitute teacher someday.” I don’t think too many people aspire to be substitute teachers, but he was responding to the fun and positive energy we were creating in the classroom.

So what makes a great teacher? Well there are many criteria, and many great teachers, but the criterion that I personally appreciate most is the ability to create a positive, fun and stimulating environment in which to learn.