Jeremy Côté



One of the professions in which I hold in highest esteem is that of the teacher. A good teacher is simply the best tool for the development of children. A fantastic teacher can truly shape the future of a student in ways that both the student and the teacher cannot even imagine. Because of this, being a teacher is a big responsibility; not only to teach students the material that they are fluent in, but also to probe students’ interests and attempt to find what they would be adept at. Then, a great teacher will push the students in the proper direction to further each students’ goals.

I’ve had multiple teachers in my life that have shaped who I am and how I look at the world today. Not all of them imparted lessons to me that had to do with specific material. Some helped me see a certain idea in a different light, and some were just enjoyable to have. However, the best teachers I have been taught by have several important characteristics. I think each of these characteristics can be related to one teacher we have in the past (hopefully).

Before I list them out, this is very important to note: teachers are not solely relegated to the school systems that we know. Teachers can come from a variety of places: on sports teams as coaches, as part of clubs, as friends, or even as experts on a subject. Just because your official title doesn’t call you a teacher does not mean you are not one. If you know something that the person across from you does not, you have the potential to be a teacher.1

With that being said, here are the characteristics every great teacher should have (keep in mind that this list is from the perspective of a student who values good teaching and wants to participate in classrooms that are engaging and interesting).

The gift of explanation

The best teachers are the ones who know how to explain concepts to students in a way that is intuitive for them to understand. This usually means that a great teacher is also a great storyteller, for that is often one of the easiest ways to explain a concept. Stories allow students to make connections with what they already know with what they are learning. Furthermore, as one gets into more abstract and difficult concepts to grasp, it is the mark of a great teacher when he or she can distill the essence of an idea into a concrete example so that students can feel like they have some sort of foothold on the material before advancing further.

I see this most often in my physics classes. For example, as we were being introduced to the idea of cosmology and the expansion of the universe, my teacher related the idea to the famous “chocolate chip banana bread” analogy. The idea is that each chocolate chip is like a galaxy, and as the bread bakes, it expands. However, the space between each chocolate chip also expands, creating the effect that every galaxy is moving away from every other galaxy.

Obviously, the process is a bit more complex than that. However, it was a great way to introduce the subject. When we learn things in school, the process is layered. The subsequent class builds on the previous one, and so on. Because of this process, it is absolutely essential that the introduction is well done in order to ground the students and give them some platform to build from. I know from my experience as a student that the hardest courses to understand are the ones that I felt I did not have a sufficient base understanding of the material in order to move forward.

When you move forward as a teacher after building a weak platform, you will be leaving people behind.

The ability to engage

This is one of the most difficult things to get right as a teacher (from the point of view as a student). The reason this is difficult is because engagement is really a personal thing. In truth, it is almost impossible to engage every single person in the classroom. Quite frankly, some people will rarely be engaged, no matter how interesting the teacher constructs the course. This isn’t always a fault of the teacher. Some students just don’t care about the class. However, for the students who are interested in being engaged in the class, or even those who may have a passing interest in the class, the teacher owes it to them to be as engaging as possible. The teacher needs to want to get as many people as possible interested. However, I would also put forth that the teacher owes the most interested students enough interest that they do not feel as if the teacher is ignoring them in favour of the less engaged students. I know this is a tricky balance to make, but a teacher should not have to sacrifice the ones who enjoy they class the most.

What does engagement look like? Things I have seen teachers do include bringing in news from their own lives, or culture in general to entertain students. Going back to my physics class (I think you may be able to sense a pattern here), my teacher would regularly show us xkcd comics while explaining a concept. It may not have been needed in the class, but it was just enough to bring a touch of humour to the class, which was greatly appreciated.

When a teacher has the ability to engage students, it becomes much more easy to retain their attention, as well as make students enjoy the subject.

Showing students how to learn versus how to remember

If there is one thing that I absolutely despise about the education system now, it is how there is an emphasis on knowing and memorizing versus fully understanding, yet students are still expected to have a full grasp on each concept. To me, this is simply absurd. On the one hand, the system is built on achievement through getting good grades. But on the other hand, the school wants students to be able to “learn how to learn”. This is a severe misalignment that I hope can get addressed in the future. However at the moment, it is still important to teach students to have the curiosity to understand rather than just know.

The reason is simple: understanding a concept not only gives the student a firmer ground about that specific concept, but it also lays frameworks for future use. These frameworks are so valuable because as one acquires more knowledge, a “web” begins to form in the mind. This web connects ideas from one concept to another. The beautiful thing about this mental web is that it can be interdisciplinary. By understanding the framework of an idea, you can find patterns in other concepts that fit this idea. When one framework builds onto another, it reinforces your knowledge of both ideas. This powerful process is what people say when they love to learn; it’s about creating ideas that connect across different aspects of life.

As a teacher, your job is to cultivate this in students. Don’t just show students the finished product, the result, or the formula. Give them reason to understand why this conclusion has been found. By taking the time to do this simple thing, it becomes much easier to get students to learn the material. Plus, you are giving them the proper tools in order to replicate this process of understanding anywhere else in their lives.

I know, it isn’t always a good fit, time-wise. However, I’d argue that by not investing the time now, you’re setting the student up to look for shortcuts in the process with the sole concern being the final answer. This is not what we want for students, so we should instill this notion in them every day.

The ability to probe

This final characteristic is one that is a little more ambiguous, but one I believe is vital nonetheless. Great teachers absolutely probe their students constantly. These teachers are always looking for what resonates with their students.

What do I mean by “probe”, exactly? Basically, to “probe” means to assess who your students are, and accordingly create lessons based on these interests. Sure, there may be a curriculum to follow, but there is usually some sort of leeway, in terms of examples that can be shown and whatnot. Furthermore, a teacher who probes is also looking for students who most enjoy their class, and then points them in the right direction.

Since we have all realized my obsession with physics now, I’ll give another example. Once my professor saw that I had a interest in physics, he took it upon himself to point me in the right direction for my university studies. Instead of just sitting idly by and doing nothing, he was reactive, and took his time to give me extra attention, all because he knew it could make a difference. My professor did not have to do this, but the extra investment helped me out a lot. A great teacher realizes when they can interject and add something of value, even if it isn’t expressly mandated. A great teacher doesn’t just look to satisfy the minimum requirements. Instead, he or she looks to go above and beyond.

Is it time-consuming? Sure, but it is also well worth the investment to the students.

A great teacher is not just a person who does what he or she is asked and then calls it a day. Instead, a great teacher is one who places responsibility upon themselves to really make students understand the material being taught. They do this by engaging students and creating solid foundations in which they can subsequently build up their knowledge. They promote understanding concepts rather than simply knowing them, instilling the students with the habit of curiosity rather than blind acceptance. Finally, the greatest teachers direct students into the best place that they can go following being taught the course they are taking now.

This is but a small list of attributes of great teachers, but I hope it gives you an idea of how much of an influence a teacher can have on the life of a student. What may seem like just a temporary relationship between teacher and student can become so much more if the teacher chooses to embody these characteristics.

Teachers matter more than society sometimes gives them credit for.

  1. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the teachers who aren’t as worried about their titles that do a better job of actually teaching. These people recognize that being called a “teacher” doesn’t actually make you a teacher. Rather, being a teacher is a lifelong process that doesn’t require having an ego. Teaching is about giving people the tools they need to succeed in whatever domain is being taught.