The Skills That Make a Great Teacher
There are many reasons you may find yourself teaching, even if it isn’t in your background. You could be shifting from tech to teaching, taking on a side gig, or volunteering at a local organization. Whatever the reason, you may be nervous to find yourself in such a position.
Don’t be. Chances are your history has imparted many skills critical for quality teaching. You just need to recognize your pedagogical prowess and nurture any skills that may be lacking.
Here are five skills that make great teachers—and that you may already possess.
1. The curse of knowledge
Through years of practice, experts can perform complex tasks with unthinking ease. But when they try to teach those skills, they are often befuddled at their student’s inability to master even the easy stuff.
This is the curse of knowledge, a cognitive bias that prevents experts from imagining what it is like for neophytes to not know something.
The best teachers can break this curse by suspending their biases and empathizing with the learner.
They start by dissecting complex skills and knowledge into simplified parts. They then introduce those parts in an orderly, jargon-free fashion—making sure to spell out all rationale and necessary details along the way.
After overcoming the curse of knowledge, teachers must be able to communicate efficiently. Some teachers will be better in person, others on the page, but any teacher must be able to communicate in many ways.
It’s not about finding that perfect way to relay information. Rather, teachers must develop the skill of explaining the same subject in a myriad of ways, altering their approach to match the needs of individual students.
Too many teachers see feedback as an opportunity to inform students what they did wrong. In their mind, pointing out flaws ensures students know what to fix. However, negative feedback dampers motivation, lessens confidence, and strains teacher-student relationships.
Skilled teachers use positive feedback to bolster confidence, motivation, and a sense of control—all favorable to learning.
Of course, good teachers need to point out errors, but they communicate those as growth opportunities. They never cast a critique as a character flaw, more a common mistake.
Irritation is part of a teacher’s job. Students can be rude, concepts may need to be repeated ad nauseam, and promising projects can fail to materialize learning gains. Yet, great teachers rarely show their irritation.
It’s not that teachers are supernaturally gifted. It’s that when vexation arises, they use mindfulness and stress management techniques to maintain a calm, even disposition.
Teachers who give in to their outbursts risk students perceiving themselves as flawed learners. This is detrimental to the student’s self-esteem and the student-teacher trust necessary for learning.
Don’t mistake patience as a virtue. It’s not. Because mindfulness and stress management are learnable, that makes patience a skill.
The difference between great teaching and mediocre instructing is creativity.
Instructors lecture. They heedlessly dump information on their students and assume any difficulties are a sign of the student’s ineptitude. They further confuse parroting their words with true learning.
Conversely, creativity helps teachers devise teaching methods that engage students’ minds. When students are engaged, their attention and curiosity are sparked. This spark reinforces enthusiasm and focus, both critical to retention and drive. They also devise assessment rubrics that allow the student to use the skills or knowledge in unique ways.
A love of learning
Don’t be disheartened if you think you lack one or two of these skills. Remember these are skills; they can be improved with practice, hard work, and perhaps a teacher of your own.
Nor is this list comprehensive. Great teachers host many skills we didn’t mention, such as organizational and scheduling skills. Then there are personality traits like passion, adaptability, and confidence.
But perhaps the most important quality of great teachers is the drive for self-improvement. As any teacher can tell you, there’s always something more to learn, and any teacher, at some point, must also be a student.