What Makes A Good Teacher Great?
December 5th, 2017
No matter what our profession is, we all strive to be the best we can be. As an educator, you probably want to help your students reach their full potential, and work hard to give them the knowledge and tools they need to be successful. Basically, you want to be a good teacher. But what makes a good teacher great?
If you’ve ever asked that question, you’re not alone. Azul Terronez, an educator for over 20 years, said he was “obsessed” with that question. So, he decided to ask his students what they thought made a good teacher great. He shared his findings at a TEDx event earlier this year.
According to 26,000 students from eight different school all across the country, these are eight things that make a good teacher great.
“A great teacher eats apples”
“When I first saw this, I dismissed it as silliness,” says Azul, “but it appeared again and again.”
Azul decided to follow the advice – he started eating apples. All throughout the day, he would eat an apple. After a while, kids started giving him apples, and they would comment on him eating an apple that they had given him.
“Kids wanted to see me as somebody who is willing to receive a gift from them,” he says. “The apple was a symbol for our relationship. There was goodness in that, and trust.” By listening to his students, he was able to connect with them in way that he perhaps wasn’t before.
“A great teacher is chill”
A little interpretation might be needed here. Azul explains, “When they say, ‘A great teacher is chill,’ what they really mean is: ‘Don’t take it too serious. Be calm in all situations. Don’t get overwhelmed.'” This goes back to being willing to listen. “They have a way of speaking to us about what they really want to tell us, but we have to listen.”
So, what are they trying to say when they say ‘A great teacher is chill’? Another student put it this way:
“A great teacher thinks like a kid but acts like an adult”
Yes, young ones have their own language, their own way of communicating, and they want their teachers to be a part of that. “They want us to think like them and understand what’s inside of their head,” says Azul. “They want us to see their world inside of them. But they don’t want us to act like them; they want us to be calm and protect them and keep them safe.”
“A great teacher loves to learn”
This may seem odd. After all, a teacher’s job is to, well, teach. So, why is it important for a student to have a teacher who loves learning? How does it benefit them to see their teacher being willing to learn?
“Kids want to be inspired by this idea that learning is important.”
Azul realized, “Kids want to be inspired by this idea that learning is important.” Teachers can set a powerful example.
“A great teacher isn’t a teacher”
How can a teacher not be a teacher, but still be a teacher? It doesn’t seem to make sense. Azul was equally confused, so he gave it some thought.
He thought back to when he learned how to ride a bike. How did his mother teach him? She put him on his bike, and started to push the bike. She stayed with him for a while and then let go. That’s how he learned to ride a bike – by riding it.
Azul then imagined what it would have been like if his mom taught him to ride a bike in a classroom.
He imagined it this way: “Son, first, you need to learn all the parts of a bike. There’s the pedals and the crank, and there’s a chain that turns the wheel. You have to have a significant force; once the force has enough momentum, you can keep your balance. That’s how a bike works. I want you to learn all the parts, be able to label them and draw them. Then you’re going to learn and write a research paper about the history of bike riding. All the important elements, the adventure, the development of bikes. And at the end of that, you’re going to take a final examination. If you pass and get an A, you can ride a bike.”
How motivated would he have been to learn? “At five years old, I think I would’ve said, ‘Never mind, I’ll just walk.'” He points out that this illustrates a potential problem. Sometimes sitting at a desk isn’t the best way to learn. “We don’t really value learning this way. So no wonder [students are] disruptive, or bored, or disengaged.”
Azul came to the the conclusion that being a “teacher” doesn’t have to just mean giving lectures while students sit and listen. “Kids want us to be teachers that aren’t teachers.”
“A great teacher understands that students have a life outside of school”
Azul told a story about a former student named Yvette. One day, she stopped turning in her homework. Azul talked to her and made it clear that her homework needed to be turned in the next day.
The next day, she turned in just a few sheets of unfinished work. He talked to her again. She finally explained what was going on. She said, “I normally do my homework in the bathroom because it’s the quietest place in my house, but this week the electricity was turned off, and it’s dark in there. I had a candle, but it burned out. And I’m sorry.”
“I had missed the point,” Azul said. “I had not listened when she said, ‘I’m trying, Mister.’ I heard the words, but I didn’t listen.”
So what’s the key? One student put it this way:
“A great teacher helps students if they notice a struggle”
Once again, Azul points points out the importance of listening. “[Great teachers] don’t make assumptions about what kids can and cannot do. They wait and watch, and they rescue them when they’re stuck.”
“A great teacher sings”
It seems like a strange answer, but several students said it. “It happened every year for ten years; at least one student would put this,” says Azul. Just like the “advice” to eat apples, Azul decided to give this one a try.
“The next day, I put the agenda on the board, listing all the activities of the day, the expectations, and the homework. And instead of actually reading them, very seriously, I sang, in an operatic style, big as I could.” What happened?
“Great teachers make themselves humble before their students.”
Azul says, “I expected pointing and laughing. But the classroom erupted in cheers and applause. There was a standing ovation. I could not believe it. At the end of class, they walked out, gave me high fives and handshakes.” The lesson?
“Great teachers make themselves humble before their students. They take risks. They put aside their fear to try.”
Azul summarized his message: “We need to listen to our students. In our classrooms are the future…Can you imagine if we took the time to ask those students, ‘What would make a good teacher great?’ and then we actually listened? We could transform schools and education.”
This is a summary of Azul Terronez’s talk from TEDxSantoDomingo in 2017. Watch the full 15-minute talk by Azul in the video below.
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