The Light Side of the Academic Force: Characteristics of Good Teachers

As promised in last week’s post, this post is about the characteristics of good teachers. I’m extremely lucky in that I’ve had several terrific instructors. Heck, I’m surrounded by teachers—my dad is a retired high school teacher who also taught a few classes at one of the local community colleges and received multiple teaching awards, one of my good friends is a high school teacher, and several of my friends are severely underpaid college instructors. These people and the wonderful teachers I’ve encountered throughout my education have shown me numerous “good” teacher characteristics, and I’ve listed many of those attributes here. Indeed, these are the traits that I believe teachers should strive to have and that students should appreciate.

Apple, teacher . . . there's a connection. Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

Apple, teacher–there’s a connection.
Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

1. They don’t try to be “cool.” Some of the coolest teachers I’ve ever had were the ones who didn’t try to be “cool.” They were comfortable in their own skins and in their own quirkiness. These tend to be the funniest instructors, and they also tend to be the most approachable.

2. They call themselves out on their own shortcomings. I once had a professor who, I kid you not, undid his belt, unzipped his pants, and starting tucking in his shirt while he was in the front of the room and giving a lecture. Unsurprisingly, we students were a bit freaked out, and he realized it . . . even though it took him a while. Instead of ignoring the situation, he stopped (hand still in his pants), looked at us, and said, “Well, I’d step out into the hallway to take my pants off, but they’d probably arrest me.” The class roared with laughter. Why did this make the professor a good teacher? Because he called himself out and owned his . . . incident. Good teachers realize that they are not infallible, and they’re okay with admitting their mistakes.

3. They view their students as human beings and treat them with respect. Instructors know that they have power simply by having the title of “teacher.” The trick is not to abuse that power by acting like a Dark Force instructor. It’s one thing to use that power to keep one’s classroom in control. It’s another to lord it over students. Good teachers rarely, if ever, abuse their powers of position.

4. They don’t put down their students. This connects to #3. Good professors don’t need to build up their egos by cutting down their students. Rather, they get satisfaction by seeing their students succeed. My teacher friends are always excited when they see improvement in their students’ work and when they see their students succeed.

5. They get your assignments and tests back to you in a timely fashion. I understand a week. I understand two weeks. But two months of waiting to get an assignment back is a bit excessive. For teachers, grading usually isn’t fun or easy. So, when they turn assignments, essays, and tests back to students in a timely manner, I feel like it quietly acknowledges the efforts that the students put into their work. I see it as a nod of respect to the student.

6. They give clear feedback. One teacher I had wrote so many comments on our papers that the essays looked like they were bleeding ink. You’d see that and you’d think, “I flunked the paper. That’s it. I fail at life” (okay, maybe not the “I fail at life” part). Then, you’d get it back, and you’d have a good grade. This professor just wanted her students’ writing to be the best that it could be, and she knew that a way for them to improve was by providing clear and copious feedback. I can safely say that I became a better writer because of her feedback.

7. They are honest without being cruel. I once turned in a draft of which I was extremely proud. I thought that my professor would be uber super impressed with how I weaved three stories into one. She wasn’t. She wrote on my paper (See how important #6 is?) that my method didn’t work. When I met with her to discuss possible revisions to the story, she was kind, but honest, in her feedback. She showed me that honesty with a student doesn’t have to hurt or feel like an attack. Long story short, I made the revisions, and she was right. It was much better with her suggestions, and it’s now a piece that I’m getting ready to send out to publications. Her honest (yet not cruel) feedback has resulted in me trusting her judgment on pretty much any piece of writing I give her.

8. They try their best to make the material easy to understand. I had a teacher who somehow made learning cognitive neuroscience possible. She spoke in a conversational tone, made sure to explain the terms clearly with relevant examples, and left no rock of material unturned. Now, I completely understand what a monkey neuron does when it receives electrical stimulation. I’m not sure how that’s going to help me in life, but it will make for interesting small talk at parties.

9. They make the material fun. You wouldn’t think that parsing out sentences and mapping them would be enjoyable. Yet, this professor made the material and the process fun and entertaining. He used his personality to enhance lessons, make his students laugh, and help us to take seemingly nebulous concepts and associate them with entertaining anecdotes. There was one concept that the teacher associated with “a dirty hippie.” This had the class laughing, and the funny story helped students (or at least me) to remember the concept come test time.

10. They are easy to get ahold of and willing to help. I understand that teachers have their own lives, but I ain’t a huntin’ dog. I don’t want to sniff the air to catch whiffs of a teacher’s trail, have to search for him, and then flush him out of hiding. Instructors who make themselves available via clear office hours and through actually responding to students’ e-mails, I believe, truly show their dedication to their students and to their jobs as teachers.

11. They let you be you. In one class, I really felt like I didn’t fit in. My opinions were often opposite of what many of my classmates said. Heck, I even got into it with one woman about whether or not the sun existed. I said that it did, and she said that the aliens might not agree with me. . . . Anyway, I talked to my professor about this incident and about my general feelings of being the class oddball. Instead of trying to make me fit into a standardized mold or push me into believing a certain way, he essentially told me that it’s okay not to agree with everyone in the class. He encouraged independent thinking amongst his students, and he told me that it was okay for me to be me and that it was acceptable to let my views be known. Teachers encouraging students to think for themselves and not hide their beliefs is a mark of a good teacher.

12. They inadvertently teach you something about life. For years I kept in touch with my 7th grade teachers, Mr. and Mrs. C. They made 7th grade one of my favorite years in middle school. Their academic lessons aren’t what stuck with me, though. The lessons that did occurred when Mrs. And Mr. C. came to my undergraduate Honors graduation ceremony. Throughout the event, her husband—a black belt in judo, Vietnam War veteran, and overall bad butt that would make Stallone look a bit wimpy—held her purse and anticipated her every need. His love for her outweighed his propensity to look macho, and maybe that’s what real “men” are made of. That was lesson #1. As Mrs. C. was waiting for him to bring the car around after the ceremony, she looked at me and said, “He’s so good. Find a man who makes you laugh and who’s like your dad. I did that. He’s exactly like my dad, and he always makes me laugh, and look at us now.” This was lesson #2. She told me this a few months before she died from a long, second battle with cancer. I’ve never forgotten these two lessons, nor will I forget either of them.

Sometimes, I think that teachers forget how influential they can be in their students’ lives. It can be hard not to focus on that one, squeaky wheel of a student who won’t try and who won’t let the instructor help him/her. One of my goals in life is to become a college English professor, and as I write my personal statements for my PhD applications, this list reminds me what kind of a professor I want to become. So, if I do get accepted into at least one PhD program (cross your fingers), I at least have a road map for becoming a good teacher thanks to the good teachers I’ve encountered.

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2 thoughts on “The Light Side of the Academic Force: Characteristics of Good Teachers

  1. That’s a very interesting article, and I think you made some very valid points. I think you would do well to continue on in the path you’ve chosen, because just reading the things you’ve written here makes me think you’d make a fine teacher yourself. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Thank you for reading, and thank you very much for your kind words. They’ve given me the template for good teaching and, hopefully, I’ll be able to live up to it someday.

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