10 Ways to be a Terrific Teacher


Recently, Vicki Davis posted her 10 Ways to be a Terrible Teacher. I enjoyed reading her ideas, but today, I want to take a slightly more positive spin and share my thoughts on 10 Ways to be a Terrific Teacher.

Of course, these are visions of my ideal self and what teaching should be. In no way am I proposing that I am a terrific teacher or that I embody any of these ideals 100%. However, I see some of these traits in myself, others in colleagues, others in members of my PLN (both virtual and non).

1. Use your cell phone, iPad, and laptop in class. One of the comments I made on Vicki’s post was that since I committed myself to keeping my phone away during class time, I have been much happier with myself and my focus. This was in reference to my own personal use of the phone, which, in retrospect, was a flagrant violation of my moral obligation to attend to my students and my work.

So, of course, I mean this for strictly professional or pedagogical purposes. Although I am only in the infancy stages of using mobile devices in the classroom, the fact is they are tools of curiosity and necessity that need to be leveraged for student learning. My students are beginning to use my cell phone to document learning, as well as my digital camera. Which brings me to the next point…

2. Trust your students. I recently talked with a colleague about the iPads she and I purchased. She is someone I respect immensely and have learned so much from. When I told her my students love using the iPad (whether it’s for reading, practicing handwriting, or doing math), she replied with some form of, “You let the kids TOUCH the iPad??” as if I was crazy. To each their own, but sure I do.

Not only is the technology exciting to my students (most of whom don’t have the flashy new stuff in their homes), but I believe it is important to show in many ways that I trust them. One way is by letting them handle expensive items that I bring to school. Of course, we discuss how to hold and properly use these tools to limit the possibility of something happening to them. That trust, though, earns me respect because I am showing my respect for the students’ abilities to use my things safely.

3. Believe in the best of your students. And, by the way, in my class, students don’t need to earn respect and trust. These things are rewards of entering my classroom at the beginning of the year. I believe in the best of my students’ personalities. That way, when an inevitable slip-up occurs that causes our trust to be frayed, I have the opportunity to approach the student by saying something along the lines of, “This doesn’t seem like you” instead of “You’re always doing things like this!” Especially if the message the student most often receives is, “You messed up again,” I seek to make the message be, “You’re better than this.”

4. Mandates are mandated, but so are other things. Sure, we all have a schedule to keep, standards to meet, paperwork to file, and assessments to give. These things are pretty much inflexible. However, there are times when it is appropriate – no, when it is necessary – to deviate from the path. The most fulfilling experiences in teaching are the most organic ones. I remember my class releasing butterflies last spring. A visit to our school garden became a spontaneous lesson about the various plants and flowers – all because the students just wanted to know.

Other unplanned events need to happen, too. Sometimes class meetings are necessary. Maybe they don’t fall into the state requirements or your daily schedule, but a situation impacting the whole class can not be ignored. Meetings give everyone a chance to air their grievances and find common solutions. Bypassing these meetings when there is a clear need for them only encourages members of the classroom community to harbor resentment because their needs and beliefs are not being validated.

5. Be the last frontier for your students. Too many children come through our doors on the first day already with the mindset that they are worthless, that school stinks, that they are dumb, that we are dumb, that this person hates them and that person hates them. The buck needs to stop at us. We have to be the last ones who refuse not to believe in our students. If our students leave us the same or worse than when they came to us, we have failed them. Everyone of our students matters and not one of them can be left to feel any differently.

6. Take time for yourself and take extra time for your students. In the past it was suggested to me that I could periodically eat lunch with my students – “Mm, would they love that!” I always wrote this off as frivolity and scoffed at teachers who had their students join them for midday nosh. Who were these little children to impose upon my sacred 50 minutes without them, the only time when I could sit with people my own age and size and have intelligent conversation?

Of course, since I’ve begun the practice of bringing students to the classroom for lunch, I’ve surely changed my tune. Students see it is a privilege to eat with the teacher, and I would argue it is a privilege for the teacher to eat with the students, too. I find I learn so much more about their personalities and lives in unstructured social time than I ever could during hectic teaching and learning time. Lunchtime chats are informal, fun ways of getting to know your students – and for them to see you as more than just a teacher, but as a human being. Which reminds me…

7. You are human. Don’t avoid it. The days of the stern teacher with the lemon-face glare standing in front of the room rapping the board with a pointer are fading fast. Teachers I admire are at the forefront of the change toward a less formal structure. It is not always prudent to equate silence and lack of movement with a good learning environment. The teaching profession is evolving into guidance toward discovery rather than being sole authority of knowledge. Districts around the country are behind the times on this new mentality, but there are inspirational and amazing people out there who are turning the notion of teaching on its head just by acknowledging that teaching is not about our egos, but rather the students’.

The other part of your humanity comes from allowing yourself to show genuine emotion in front of your students. If you are someone who feels you can’t smile in your classroom until Christmas, man, do I feel sorry for your and your students. Smiles create warmth and belonging. Laughter does the same. The classroom should be a happy place, not a sterile, dreadful place.

8. Be a share bear. Yes, I said it like that.

If you are doing something awesome, share it. Chances are someone will be inspired by it and try to model their own practice after yours, or better yet, they will adapt for their own needs.

If your students are doing something awesome, share it even more! Let your colleagues know and let your administration know. Don’t seek to over-inflate students’ heads, but do seek opportunities for them to be recognized as the awesome people they are.

And, finally, if your colleagues share something with you, accept it with an open mind. You are under no obligation to use it, but at the very least, you might want to consider it. Teaching on an island is a dangerous endeavor, for when you seal yourself off from people and ideas around you, you run the risk of letting great things pass you by.

9. Actually, you do not know everything and, actually, you never will. So many teachers – including me – started their careers with an “I know everything” attitude. Maybe we were uninterested in what those who came before us had to say. Maybe we were defensive when our practice was criticized. Maybe we were insulted when our greatest lesson plans turned into out to be our worst lessons.

The easy answer is this: teaching is learning. A terrific teacher needs to reflect and evaluate. When the students push back with their struggles and defiance, the teacher needs to change himself, not them. When a parent approaches the teacher to question something, the teacher needs to listen intently, and not assume anything about the parent or downplay the concerns. When an administrator offers a critique or suggestion, the teacher needs to take it to heart and examine the reason the suggestion is being made.

10. We’re in it for the kids. That’s my mantra and it has been since day one. No matter how down we get, how infuriated we become by things we can’t control, how demoralizing our job sometimes is, we must never forget that we’re in it for the kids.

I have misjudged many people who I believed to be cold and indifferent toward their students as a result of their disenchantment with being pawns in a political chess match that seems locked in stalemate. The reality is these people care about their students just as much as I care for mine. We are all struggling for solutions to enormous issues, and in worrying so much about them, we sometimes forget just how much we can positively impact our children on a daily basis.

We must never lose sight of that influence. Our poor students have no idea about what is going on in this country regarding education, and we shouldn’t let our worries and misgivings indirectly affect them.

Let’s also not forget that so many children come from unstable homes where things are happening that many of us can’t even conceive as adults – let alone as children. So we need to be their beacon of hope, the light that shines brightly for them when their world seems enveloped in endless darkness.

While the reform dialogue so often centers around the negative impact teachers have on students, those of us on the front lines need to remember just how vital our positive impact truly is. Let’s also never forget: we’re in it for the kids.

Despite what anyone says about teaching, how it isn’t a full work day, how summers are free, how it can’t be much to watch a bunch of kids all day, we know that teaching is an immensely challenging profession. We all struggle on our way to becoming the best teachers we can be, but it is our endless striving toward that utopia that makes us better.

Surely you have your own ways of being a terrific teacher. I hope you’ll share them in the comments!

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4 responses to “10 Ways to be a Terrific Teacher

  1. Thank you for these little bits of inspiration on a weekly basis. I sometimes feel beat down by the work load I am receiving in school and your posts help to give me a little boost every now and then.

  2. Crystal Rodriguez

    Excellent. Thank you for your positive words of encouragement.

  3. #2 is funny! The teachers in my school feel the same way about the Smartboard.LOL They don’t let the students touch it!:)

  4. This is very inspiring! I am a grade school teacher in a public school. With the environment my kids have, it is not always about what we teach like the ABC’s and 1,2,3’s.. it’s about how we make them feel.. that they are secure, loved, appreciated and more importantly they should know that they MATTER!

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