What makes a good teacher?

One of a series of questions to be explored at Essential Questions for Educators Everywhere open summer course National College of Ireland 26-30th of June 2017


‘What makes a good teacher’ seems a simple question and you might expect a straight forward answer. However, the more you think about it the more you will realise that it is not so simple after all.

NCI Staff at a Learning & Teaching Development Event

For many years now, I have worked with students and teachers in different sectors and contexts. Over time we have developed an exercise to interrogate this question. The exercise is worthwhile for learning professionals everywhere.

You can try this yourself.

Start by thinking about your own experiences as a student and ask yourself who was the best teach

er you ever had. Go on think about who that might be now…. Have you identified someone? Good! Let’s presume you can picture that person in your mind. Write down, or make a mental list, of the top qualities you associate with them.

Keep that list handy and read on…

OK, I’m going to have to introduce some theory before we proceed. Let’s assume the basic task of a teacher is to bring about learning in another person. I hope you can accept this as a starting point. So, teaching is a skill or craft associated with a person who’s quality or effectiveness is only apparent through their impact on others.

This is similar to, say, the skills of a comedian. The task of a comedian is to make others laugh; no matter how closely you examine the actions of a comedian you can only confirm their talent through the laughter of other people.

So too for teaching, if you wish to examine the qualities of a teacher – don’t look to the teacher. Look to the students!

Now, let’s take a look at your list…

Did you write the words ‘passionate’ or ‘inspiring’ or ‘motivational’ or words to that effect, as qualities associated with your good teacher? At our workshops many participants suggest these terms. I agree these are important values but with one proviso: Think back to the classroom contexts in which you experienced the ‘good’ teaching. Try to visualise the scene and look around. Was it a maths or history class, was it school or college, practical or theoretical? Was everyone learning?

How good do you think a teacher would be if they only inspired already talented students? In many cases, our vision of a good teacher is biased in terms of our own experience of learning with that person. Student teachers often speak fondly of a particular role model who ‘inspired’ them to do science or who ‘fired their passion’ for literature. Good for them! But always ask was there anyone left behind?

In my opinion, good teachers do whatever it takes learning happen to the best extent possible for every student. This means teaching in a manner that includes all students and builds on existing knowledge and skills.

One other point

How many people do you think would write ‘left me to work it out for myself’ as a quality of a good teacher? This is a tricky one. When you focus on the actions of the teacher you see nothing happening. When you look to the student or learner you see someone busy in the stretch zone. This is an elusive quality of teaching often termed ‘nurturing inquiry’. At a certain point learners need to break free from the instructional supports and scaffolds required at the early stages. Good teachers know this and are not afraid to encourage students to go it alone at a point on the learning journey.


Often, the exercise causes us to re-appraise our first thoughts on what makes a good teacher. Of course, the implicit question for all learning professionals is ‘am I a good teacher?’

So what makes a great teacher then …

Actually, no less an authority than Confucius, provides a very good response to this question in terms of a ‘The Skilful Teacher’. I have altered the quotation here to bring it up to date in terms of gender references:

The Skilful Teacher

When a superior person knows the causes which make instruction successful, and those which make it of no effect, one can be a teacher of others.

Thus in teaching, one leads and does not drag; one strengthens and does not discourage; one opens the way but does not conduct to the end without the learner’s own efforts.

Leading and not dragging produces harmony. Strengthening and not discouraging makes attainment easy. Opening the way and not conducting to the end makes the learner thoughtful.

One who produces harmony, easy attainment, and thoughtfulness may be pronounced a skilful teacher.

Confucius, Book XVI – HSIO KI (Record on the Subject of Education) Modified gender references.

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