Guide to Becoming a Great Teacher

Written by Sasha Blakeley

Becoming a Teacher

Becoming a teacher takes a great deal of dedication and time and it can take even more commitment to become a great teacher. This guide is for teachers and prospective teachers who are wondering what makes a good teacher and how to develop a personal teaching style. There are many different teaching methods, each with pros and cons. Finding the teaching style that works for you and for your students is a process. It boils down to one overarching goal -- discovering how you prefer to teach and matching that teaching style to the needs of your students. While teaching methods are highly variable, there are certain traits that are widely considered characteristic of great teachers, all of which you can cultivate in your teaching practice.

Teaching Strategies and Styles

There are many different ways to approach teaching, and research into pedagogical theory is ongoing. There is no consensus on which teaching strategies are the best, if any: there are upsides and downsides to each one. As a teacher, you might find that you naturally favor one style, but that you switch up your methods depending on the needs of your classroom. Some teaching strategies match up particularly well with different learning styles, or else are more appropriate for certain subjects or age ranges. Generally speaking, teaching methods can be divided into teacher-centered styles and student-centered styles.

Teacher-Centered Styles

Teacher-centered teaching styles are generally more traditional than student-centered styles. They usually require the teacher to be the most active participant in the classroom, with students taking a more passive role. In the teacher-centered vs student-centered pedagogical debate, teacher-centered styles are not currently in vogue. However, there are some cases when these styles may be more appropriate for classroom learning. They can also be paired with other teaching methods that may suit student learning styles better. Teacher-centered styles may be good choices for classes that have to cover a lot of material in a short space of time, or for classrooms that need extra guidance to find their feet in the learning environment.

Direct Instruction

Also called the lecture method, direct instruction is a traditional teaching style familiar to many people. In this method, the teacher delivers information to a passive audience in the form of a lecture or presentation. Direct instruction remains standard in many college classrooms today, but it has become less popular for elementary and secondary instruction. Current thinking is that the direct method is generally insufficient when not paired with other instructional strategies, as it can be challenging for many students to absorb information from a spoken lecture alone.

Demonstrator Method

The demonstrator method is one step away from direct instruction and lands closer to a more student-centered style. However, the demonstrator method still places the teacher in the center of the classroom action. Teachers act as demonstrators or coaches for students in this method, showing as well as telling. These teachers often also encourage a degree of student participation, particularly to demonstrate problem-solving techniques using new educational material. However, participation is still limited, and the style is still teacher-centered. Many teachers find the demonstrator method useful for introducing new information before moving on to a more collaborative setup.

Flipped Classroom

A flipped classroom setup is a relatively new teaching method that has seen some success. In this teaching style, the usual method of giving information in class and having students complete activities as homework is reversed. Instead, students watch or read lecture material on their own time and then complete practice activities during class time with the support of a teacher. Flipped classrooms are another step away from a strictly teacher-centered style and can center students to a greater or lesser extent depending on their execution. A lot of the success of flipped classrooms relies on the effectiveness of the lectures that students receive: if the information is clear, the system can work well, but if the new material is difficult to absorb, teachers can take up a lot of class time explaining material again.

Student-Centered Styles

Student-centered learning styles are quickly overtaking the older teacher-centered styles and becoming more popular teaching tools. The idea behind these teaching methods is that they give students more agency in their own learning, which ultimately helps students be more engaged and more able to retain and explore what they have learned. The difficulty of these teaching methods is that they often require more flexibility, and sometimes more experience, on the part of the teacher. It can take time and practice to get student-centered teaching styles right because they are so different from the kinds of methods most teachers are familiar with.

Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is one of the most established forms of student-centered teaching. It is a kind of personalized learning environment that works to the level of all students in a classroom instead of presenting information at a single level. Differentiated instruction accepts that students are coming to class from a variety of different backgrounds and with many different strengths and challenges. It was originally designed for use in classrooms with high numbers of English language learners (ELLs): teachers would present information in fluent English for native speakers before also presenting the same information using a level of language that ELLs were more familiar with. Differentiated instruction centers students and their needs over teachers. In addition to helping teachers and students overcome language barriers, differentiated instruction can provide additional support for students with learning disabilities, advanced learning levels, and other experiences that might make traditional learning environments more challenging.

Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning encourages students to explore their own interests and to ask questions about what they are learning. In this kind of teaching style, teachers generally provide a curriculum framework and then allow students to explore freely within that framework. They then provide support and instruction based on students' interests and questions. This places teachers into what is essentially a facilitator role. Inquiry-based learning can be excellent as a way to encourage student enthusiasm. It can bring classroom learning in unexpected and fruitful directions and can give students a free environment in which to explore and express their interests. The major challenge of inquiry-based learning is keeping students on track and making sure that they learn enough formal curriculum to keep up with educational standards. It can take skill and practice to encourage students' exploration of their interests while also keeping the class on track.

Game-Based Learning

Game-based learning, also called gamification, is a teaching style in which educational material is presented as often as possible in the form of a game. The theory is that children learn through play, so school should be no exception. While this is a fairly new theory, results seem promising so far. The biggest downside to game-based learning is that it often requires access to technology or a higher teaching budget than many schools have access to. However, even for classrooms that cannot afford elaborate games, teachers may find that they can introduce some elements of game-based learning even on a small budget, creating games that only require access to a whiteboard or paper and pens. Game-based learning may be particularly effective for younger students who may struggle to focus on longer lectures and often have a lot of energy. Games are also a great way to improve student-teacher rapport and create a more cooperative and enjoyable classroom space.

Student Learning Styles

You are probably already familiar with research that suggests that not everyone learns in the same way. Indeed, there are many recognized student learning styles that impact how individuals and classrooms function best. Being familiar with these styles and how they best link up with different teaching methods can make it a lot easier for you to make progress with your students. All students have different backgrounds, strengths, and learning styles, all of which can be incorporated into the classroom. Try to see these differences as something that can enrich the classroom experience rather than impede learning. The following are a few of the most common learning styles, though there are others.

Visual Learning

Visual learners absorb information best when they can see it. Students who learn visually often benefit from illustrations, diagrams, videos, and demonstrations. To ensure that your classroom is structured for visual learners, try to incorporate visuals into lessons whenever possible instead of just speaking. This can add interest to a lesson for all learners, even if visual learning is not their main style. Consider introducing more media to your lessons, finding video examples, or even drawing out the concepts that you are explaining on the board.

Auditory Learning

Auditory learners absorb information best when they can hear it. These students may do well in more traditional learning environments where they can clearly hear what the teacher is saying. However, student-centered learning can also benefit auditory learners: they often benefit from being able to talk about what they have learned and may enjoy debates and discussions. They may also absorb information well through music, which can be a great way to engage all students in a lesson. Auditory learning can be integrated quite smoothly with visual learning using mixed media and discussion as primary sources of information.

Kinesthetic Learning

Kinesthetic learning is learning through movement and experience. Students who are primarily kinesthetic learners may find lectures and discussions dry unless they can physically participate or experience the lesson in some way. It is common for younger learners to benefit from kinesthetic learning, though any classroom will likely have some positive experiences with it. Roleplaying activities, games, physical specimens and artifacts, creative projects, and other movement-based activities can all help kinesthetic learners. While it is not always possible to integrate all learning styles into every lesson, delivering teaching materials in a variety of ways can help keep all students on board.

How to Find Your Teaching Style

Finding your own teaching style is one of the main challenges of becoming a great teacher, and it may take you years to perfect your own methods. It can also be overwhelming to try and parse all of the different teaching styles and find the right one for you. There are certain steps that you can take that will make this process easier for you, allowing you to amalgamate a variety of teaching styles and adapt them to your own needs and the needs of your students.

Do Your Research

Understanding how to run your own classroom is something that cannot happen in a vacuum. One of the best things that you can do is to talk to other teachers. Ask what works for them and what they recommend for your classroom setup. Ask them how they go about their curriculum planning and how they plan for individual lessons. Talk to parents and your students about their experiences in your classroom and other classrooms and be open to learning from what they have to say. Be honest about your own questions and concerns. You may also find it beneficial to read about pedagogical theory and see what people who study education have to say about teaching styles.

Experiment

Don't be afraid to try new things in your classroom. Try new ways of organizing and delivering lessons, play games, and attempt new teaching styles. See what sticks and what doesn't. You may be surprised by what methods your students respond to. It can be helpful to be open about this process with your students and to ask their opinions. What kinds of lessons do they enjoy? Which ones do they feel less sure of? Be observant and consider both the academic results that your students produce and the classroom experience that different kinds of lessons provide.

Be Adaptable

Teaching requires flexibility, especially for those who are experimenting with teaching styles. It is important to understand that you will probably try some teaching strategies that will not stick. Be ready for this and be ready to change your approach based on your students' responses. Be gracious about your attempts and remember that this process, while sometimes frustrating, is one that all teachers must go through. Work on being a good observer of your students' experiences and make sure to work with them whenever possible. Think of your classroom as a collaborative environment where you and your students are all working toward similar goals.

Qualities of a Good Teacher

Teaching strategies aside, there are some personal qualities that teachers can and should cultivate that can make them more effective educators and can make the classroom experience a more positive one for everyone. Although there is no single list of the qualities of a good teacher, there are some traits that can make teachers more effective in the classroom, more connected to their students, and more able to create a positive learning environment. Some of these traits may come naturally to you, while others may take practice. Regardless of your personal teaching style, try to embody the traits below to be the best teacher you can be.

Communication

Communicating clearly both when delivering teaching material and with students and parents generally can make for a more functional and positive classroom environment. Teaching is, at its core, a form of very skillful and directed communication, so it is essential to cultivate your communication skills both when giving lessons and beyond. Everybody benefits from improved communication; you will find it easier to help your students learn, and students will feel more comfortable and more understood in class. Leading by example can also help your students learn to be more effective communicators in their own lives. They may also feel more secure communicating with you and with each other about their classroom needs and interests if they see you using your own communication skills to create a positive impact.

Collaboration

As educational theory changes, we are learning more and more that school ought to be a collaboration between students and teachers. This collaboration requires everyone to work together in a classroom environment. As a teacher, it can be immensely helpful for you to see your students as individuals and teammates, with all of you sharing the goal of creating an effective and fun learning environment. Effective collaboration is what makes teachers able to work alongside their students rather than in opposition to them. As an instructor, you can make a big difference both in your classroom environment and in your students' lives more generally by emphasizing the importance of collaboration, both inside the classroom and beyond it.

Empathy

Even the most teacher-centered educational styles now understand that students are not empty vessels, as pedagogical discourse would once have had people believe. They are whole people who come into the classroom with all of their own experiences, desires, needs, challenges, and expectations. Teachers need to be able to show empathy to their students and to engage with a variety of points of view so that everyone in the classroom feels understood and respected. In doing so, you can also teach your students to treat each other with empathy and respect. This is an important but often difficult lesson for children to learn: that the people around them are just as complex and interesting as they are, and that they have the same richness of interiority. Teachers can help students understand and express this through their own actions.

Adaptability

Teachers need to be able to welcome change and adapt to it rather than getting stuck in a single way of doing things. You will need to be able to realize and accept when a particular method is not working and change your style accordingly or risk alienating students from what you want to teach them. Teachers need to be able to improvise to resolve problems while teaching. Like all teaching skills, adaptability comes with time and improves as teachers get more comfortable with their role in the classroom. It can be challenging, and even nerve-wracking, to have to quickly change course while teaching, but it is a skill that can make the rest of your career smoother, more effective, and more enjoyable.

Openness to Learning

Teachers should not only be instructors, but also life-long learners who are eager to engage with fresh perspectives. Students are likely to introduce teachers to new ideas, which teachers would typically do well to engage with in good faith. Not only does this openness improve your ability to bring engaging material to your students, but it also makes teaching and learning a more rewarding experience over the course of a career. It is possible, and even likely at some educational levels, that some students will be able to add information to a lesson that teachers themselves were not aware of. Teachers should not think of this as a challenge to authority, but as a form of educational enrichment: adding new and varied perspectives to a lesson can only benefit both students and teachers. Being open to learning outside of the classroom can also let teachers absorb new information and ideas that they can then bring back to their students.

Authenticity

It is okay, and in fact, it can be a very good idea, to ask students for their opinions on classroom matters and to talk to them about teaching and learning styles. Students often appreciate knowing that their teachers are human, and they may also appreciate having a say in how their education unfolds. Engage with your students as fellow human beings and acknowledge your own mistakes whenever you can. This will allow everyone in the classroom to appreciate each other's complexity, accept each other's mistakes and successes, and ultimately create a better learning environment together.

Expert Answers to Common Questions about what makes a good teacher

  • In what ways can new teachers find support during their first year of teaching?
  • What classroom management or instructional strategies may be helpful for prospective and new teachers to learn more about?
  • What guidance can you give prospective teachers on determining what age group, subject, and type of school would be a fit for them?
  • What is one piece of advice you wish you had when you were working to become a teacher?
  • Why did you decide to pursue the education field?

You can read their biographies and answers below:

  • Expert contributor image

    Jeff Bakken

    Professor of Special Education

    Jeffrey P. Bakken, Ph.D., is a Professor of Special Education at Bradley University. He currently teaches in the online Ed.D. Higher Education Administration program. He has a Bachelors Degree in Elementary Education from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, and graduate degrees in the area of Special Education-Learning Disabilities from Purdue University He has taught in the public schools and universities for the last 30 years. He has published over 200 works and made over 275 presentations at International/National and Regional/State conferences while also authoring co-authoring numerous grants totaling over $1,000,000.00.

    • In what ways can new teachers find support during their first year of teaching?

      Support as a new teacher is very important I would look for districts and schools that offered mentors to new teachers. Districts and schools that had a support system in place for not only new teachers but all teachers. Support for teachers in the forms of professional development, schoolwide events, travel to conferences, and district wide events would be important. When teachers are interviewing for a possible job they should be interviewing the district and school as well. What plans or programs do they have in place to support new and existing teachers? How will they help new and existing teachers develop and grow? What is their idea of a successful teacher and how will they work to make that happen? Lastly I would suggest individuals talk to existing teachers about what they need to feel supported and how schools make this happen.

    • What guidance can you give prospective teachers on determining what age group, subject, and type of school would be a fit for them?

      Hopefully, through your teacher education programs you will be exposed to different teaching environments that will help you with this decision. In addition to this, I urge you to volunteer in schools of different types in the summer and during breaks in your school year. I would even encourage you to work or volunteer at different camps or summer programs where you are exposed to children of different ages. You might think you want to work with younger children, but once in that environment you might decide older children may be better. In regards to the subject you have to consider, do you want to teach math (for example) as your only subject in a secondary setting or teach all subjects in an elementary setting. Again, visiting different types of classrooms and interviewing or talking to teachers will give you better insight into what you might teach and at what level.

    • What is one piece of advice you wish you had when you were working to become a teacher?

      My advice would be to get into classrooms as soon as possible -- elementary, secondary and high school settings. See what teachers do and have to deal with. Talk with teachers, principals and students. Get a sense of what is happening in schools (the good and the bad) and what skills are needed to be successful. Make sure you understand what teaching is all about so that your decision to become a teacher is well informed. Teaching, in my opinion, is one of the best professions and seeing children learn is awesome, but everything is not rosy and teaching is hard. The field needs dedicated teachers that are willing do do the hard work for our children and families.

    • Why did you decide to pursue the education field?

      I got into education because I have always liked to help people and help people learn. As a student I respected my own teachers and valued what I learned from them. In some cases, they were role models for me. I wanted to be a role model for my own students. I was also a classroom tutor and found extreme satisfaction when I could help a fellow student learn something they were having trouble with. I wanted all students to feel learning was important and that if they set goals for themselves and worked hard they could achieve those goals. I was a first generation college student from my family, and I wanted others to know they could be successful as well. I also wanted to show students how powerful education was and that education could help change their lives in a positive way.

  • Expert contributor image

    Usha Rajdev

    Professor

    Dr. Usha Rajdev teaches Science Technology Engineering and Math using a hands-on teaching approach. She was fortunate to be selected by NASA's Goddard Space Center to send an experiment on the space shuttle Atlantis, in 1999. In 2012 she earned Faculty of the Year Service Award, Virginia Project Learning Tree Outstanding Educator Award, and the National Project Learning Tree Outstanding Educator Award. Dr. Rajdev and Fort Belvoir Elementary School, earned the Association of Teacher Educators in Virginia 2014 School/University Partnership Award and the STEM Leadership Award by the International Association of STEM Leaders. She was a recipient of the Fulbright Specialist Project in 2012. Dr. Rajdev is awarded a fellowship by the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program for her work with Ndejje University and five High Schools to implement: Project Based Learning with a focus in engineering and design programs, in Uganda, Africa.Dr. Rajdev is a counselor for Marymount University's Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society and spearheads the STEM initiative in KDPs International Committee. Shes a faculty advisor for the National Science Teaching Association Student Chapter and for Marymount Universitys Global STEM Certificate.

    • In what ways can new teachers find support during their first year of teaching?

      Before leaving college exchange emails with compatible peers. Keep in touch with your professors. Join professional organizations. Be careful what you post on social media. Or what you read. In your first year ensure the school assigns you a mentor teacher. Remember this individual is your guide to familiarizing with the school policies, staff, parents... Avoid negative conversations (keep those for your own self. Words travel in schools.). Attend webinars in classroom management or topics of interest. Kappa Delta Pi Honor Society offers free webinars for teachers and pre-service teachers. Invest in Harry Wong's books. Good guidance to areas you may need to brush up on. First year of teaching is a most difficult year, there after it gets easier each year. Ensure you save lesson plans in folders on your computer. You modify for the following year to meet the new students needs. There are many lessons available through the websites. Tailor them to your curriculum and your students needs. Pace yourself. Rest and don't forget to eat.

    • What classroom management or instructional strategies may be helpful for prospective and new teachers to learn more about?

      Remember to pick your battles. Don't get caught up with an argumentative student. You have other students in the class. Ask the student to leave the room, or call for help. Give students warning for unacceptable behavior. Don't make threats but insist on appropriate behavior. Model good behavior. Smile and make teaching fun with hands on experience. Set boundaries and rules. Follow procedures. Consistency will be the success in a 'well oiled' classroom. Use Harry Wong's classroom videos for effective classroom teachers. Walk around in your classroom. Make your presence known. Avoid hugging the board. Set daily schedule and assignment before classes begin. Praise good behavior and the more you harp on unacceptable behavior the worst it will get. Ensure you let parents know of good and unacceptable behavior with positive, negative, positive: Sandwich remarks. Ensure your sub has a proper lesson plan as the teaching continuity is important. They are NOT baby sitting your students. They too chose the job to make a difference. Allow them the opportunity. Assign jobs to students to help you as leaders. Great way to keep have students own their classroom. Always have a back up plan. If plan A fails go to plan B.

    • What is one piece of advice you wish you had when you were working to become a teacher?

      How to facilitate a student's learning and not teach to test or through the textbook alone.This means making education a learning experience involving real word scenarios and making the connection. By being a facilitator, finding strategies to overcome errors and misconceptions in math and science. Ensuring by doing the stated 'failure is/was not an option'.

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