Is the Idea Of A 'Good' Teacher All In Your Mind?

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As a child, I remember heading back to school and hearing whispered rumors about the teachers in my new grade, other kids and sometimes adults speaking under their breath about which teachers you wanted to get and which teachers you definitely didn’t. Sometimes these rumors turned out to be true and sometimes they didn’t.

My sister got one of these teachers, that you “definitely didn’t want to get”, in early elementary school. The rumor was that “Ms. Burkett” was too strict, never smiled, gave out a ton of work, and didn’t let anyone have any fun. Ironically, she turned out to be one of my sister’s favorite teachers. You see my sister was a student who, even at that age, usually felt under-challenged. So, this teacher’s high expectations and large workload were a perfect fit. This teacher also admired my sister and gave her extra responsibilities in the classroom which created an environment where she thrived.

Around that same time, in upper elementary, I got one of the teachers that everyone wanted. Let’s call her “Ms. Green”. “Ms. Green” was lenient, creative, and soft-spoken. The rumor was that she was the fun teacher and hers the best class to be in. It was one the worst school years of my early childhood. Her unperceptive and often sporadic discipline allowed girls to form groups and bullying to go unaddressed. As a person who needed a calm emotional environment, I felt miserable and unable to focus.

As the beginning of a new school year approaches for my children, I hear the very same type of rumors about teachers that I heard in my childhood. And it makes me think, “What makes someone a “good” teacher anyway”? Of course there are bad teachers out there who hate their job, are incompetent in their field, or shame students into behaving. But most of the time what makes someone a “good” or “bad” teacher is pretty subjective and not clear-cut.

A study published by Sandra Chang-Kredl at Concordia University sorted through the most popular teacher ratings on the social media site Reddit (which is completely anonymous) and coded them according to theme. The “best” teachers, who were more often male, (but maybe this has to do with the population of responders on Reddit), were described as engaging, dedicated, unique, humorous, easy-going, physically attractive, and strict but fair. Whereas the “worst” teachers, who were more often female, were criticized as lacking in judgement, lazy, unfair, bad-tempered, unattractive, condescending, and incompetent.

Interestingly, the personal qualities that “best” teachers were lauded for were often virtually identical to the behaviors that the “worst” teachers were criticized for. For example, “good” teachers were praised as being “lenient” or “chill” while “bad” teachers were chastised for “putting in no effort.” These phrases describe the same set of characteristics in a positive way for the “best” teachers and a negative way for the worst.

The researchers say that this finding leads them to believe that who we deem to be the best teacher might just be a reflection of our or our student’s style, personality, perspective, and learning needs. In fact, maybe there is no ideal teacher for every student, since all students are unique. In other words, someone who I think is a great teacher, you could think is a horrible teacher, especially if we are people who approach learning from very different perspectives or come to the classroom with differing needs.

So perhaps those teachers that are considered universally “great” have the greatest ability to be adaptable― to change their style according to the personality type, characteristics, and learning style of the student or students with whom they are working. Conversely, those that are universally seen as “bad” teachers are unable to adapt to many types of learners and personality types. Because after all, a great teacher is a great manager of little (or sometimes not so little) people.

According to research, great managers find what is unique about each person and capitalize on it. They recognize the individual abilities of each of their employees and figure out how to use these abilities to make the whole group work more effectively. By isolating a person’s talent, great managers are able to turn that talent into performance.

Like great managers, great teachers look for what students do well, praise them for that skill, and figure out how to reassign, revise or modify the curriculum and classroom responsibilities to capitalize on that strength. A great teacher and a great manager both have to constantly revise how they are doing things in order to get the most out of those that they manage. In order to do this, they must get to know their students as individuals and they must also be flexible.

So maybe, our opinion on whether or not someone is a “good” or “bad” teacher is just a reflection of how well their style and personality match up with ours as a parent or as a student. But perhaps a truly great teacher, is perceived as great by most students because they have the ability to recognize the style and personal strengths of each of their students and use those characteristics to propel that student towards becoming the best version of themselves.

A version of this article was originally published on The Learning Zone.

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