“What Makes a Great Teacher?” Answered by 4 Great Teachers

I get a lot of excellent questions about math and math education. They come via email, Twitter, Facebook, and the occasional window-brick. There’s only one problem (aside from the broken windows).

Most are questions I am wholly ill-qualified to answer.

Take this doozy from high school student Charlie in Florida: What makes a great teacher and what makes a bad teacher in your eyes?

I fumbled over how to answer… then realized that I don’t have to. I can ask some great teachers to answer for me! From four hand-picked heroes of mine, I got a variety of insightful replies, to which I have added my feeble illustrations.


“A Great Teacher Makes School Less Stressful”
by Fawn Nguyen

School is inherently stressful for many. It’s mandatory. It’s an institution of compliance: take this class, follow this schedule, sit here, do this, and more often than not, shut up.

A great teacher makes school less stressful.

great teacher - fawn

She understands that her students would rather be elsewhere, but they are here now and she’ll make the best of it for them. She will not waste her students’ time. She is pleased and excited that everyone is present because she has crafted the best lesson and together they will explore.

A great teacher does not take his class too seriously, he laughs with them, makes light of his vulnerability. He yearns to hear each student’s voice and works on inviting that voice to come out in whatever way it needs to.

A great teacher loses her mind because she’s so happy that one of her students has asked a wonderful question that leads the discussion down some glorious path that she had not intended.

A bad teacher does not care. About anything other than putting in the hours.


Where Do We Turn After Failure?
by Patrick Honner

I’m reluctant to use the phrase “Bad Teacher.” Faced with hundreds of interactions and decisions every day, we all have good and bad moments. Those moments accumulate over a semester, a year, a career, and in most cases yield a net positive result I’d say.

But you can tell a lot about a teacher by how they respond when students don’t succeed. Some will say, “What’s wrong with you?” Others will ask, “What’s wrong with me?”

great teacher - patrick


What Do Great Teachers Know?
by Jo Morgan

A wise man once told me that a great teachers know three things: they know their subject, they know how to explain their subject, and they know their students.

great teacher - jo

Subject knowledge is so often misunderstood by teachers. ‘I have degree in mathematics, of course I can teach it’. But it’s so much more than that. It’s knowing how to explain things, in multiple ways, in ways that make sense. It’s about making complex ideas crystal clear. It’s bringing topics alive, and that can only be done by teachers with a deep understanding of what they’re teaching.  Knowing the history of a topic, the interesting problems, the common misconceptions, the multiple approaches, the links to other topics. And it’s about expert communication of all of that.

That’s not to say a great teacher needs to be an entertainer – an expert communicator does so with clarity, not with gimmicks. But passion goes a long way. A great teacher loves their subject, and can’t wait to tell their students about it.


Seeking Knowledge, Seeking Change
By Marian Dingle

No one sets out to be bad at teaching. But there are those that enter the field for reasons that don’t serve them (or anyone).

I believe that these teachers do not have a well-articulated “why.” Why are they teachers? Why their particular school? Why their grade band? They also don’t know the whys of their pedagogical moves, instructional questions, or mindset.

Since they are not adept at self-analysis, they also can not appreciate this in their students. They are unable to understand students (or colleagues) who need to know why. They see their incessant questions as unnecessary interrogation and even insubordination.

And when they grow up to become administrators…

great teacher - marian

Now, what about greatness? I see it as on par with wisdom. An educator can approach greatness only after much time (perhaps many years) honing their craft. Even then, it is never really achieved, but approached asymptotically.

Great educators have the humility to know that they do not know everything, and are forever seeking to know.

They seek this knowledge from unpopular sources.

They take risks daily, because what other way is there to live?

They know that the world is inequitable, and they seek their own place in creating lasting change.

They co-create educational experiences with their students because they realize that students hold key knowledge of their own that most don’t acknowledge or even recognize.

They do not expect perfection from their students or from themselves, but have unwavering faith in collective knowledge-making.

They hold each other accountable.

They are quick to apologize, quick to praise, yet do not hesitate to correct where needed.

They have a way of being that students respect.

They do not see education as subject-specific. They recognize the interconnectedness of disciplines and do their best to model this for students.

They are honest with themselves and with students.

They seek to be antiracist in belief and action; they value being racially fluent.

They understand that race is a topic that is hard to discuss openly, and take opportunities to do it well.

They understand that ultimately, the answers to the questions that plague us are found through communication across race.

They are courageous not because they don’t know fear, but because they don’t allow fear to keep them from questioning existing structures, challenging the opinions of their colleagues and administrators, or investigating their own participation and complicity in a system they find subpar.

Yet, they do more than just reflect. They push for change, within and without their classroom.

7 thoughts on ““What Makes a Great Teacher?” Answered by 4 Great Teachers

  1. In teaching HR to young adults, all from other countries, I show them this so they can understand where I’m coming from:
    The Tao of Teaching
    A good teacher is better than a spectacular teacher. Otherwise, the teacher outshines the teachings.
    Facilitate what is happening rather than what you think ought to be happening.
    A wise teacher lets others have the floor.
    Silence says more than words; pay much attention to it.
    A good reputation arises naturally from doing good work. But do not nourish the reputation; the anxiety will be endless. Instead, nourish the work.
    To know what is happening, relax and do not try to endlessly figure things out. Listen quietly, be calm and use reflection.
    The gift of a great teacher is to create an awareness of greatness in others.
    Trying to appear brilliant does not work. The moon may shine, but it is only a reflection of the sun.
    adapted from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

  2. Glad to find a math teacher who draws–doesn’t matter if it’s bad. If I’d have had that as a high school student, I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time. Really thoughtful teachers here too.

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