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What makes a great teacher? – 7 things that separate the best from the rest

If you want to distinguish the truly great teachers from the merely competent, there are certain criteria that will tell you all you need to know, says John Lawson

John Lawson
by John Lawson
Scarlett Fife teaching resources
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PrimaryEnglishHealth & WellbeingScience

Lewis Hamilton’s seventh World Championship win late last year made him one of the greatest ever Formula 1 drivers.

Few could question his brilliance in the field of motorsport, nor those of other sporting legends like Mohammed Ali, Roger Federer, or Diego Maradona.

The process of recognising success in sport is relatively straightforward, but it’s much harder to do in other professions. How do we identify great educators?

Teachers will often be judged – unfairly – on their students’ exam results, or contribution to their school’s standing in the league tables. Devotees of the film Dead Poets Society may cite John ‘Carpe Diem’ Keating as a pedagogical exemplar, albeit a fictional one.

He’s shown to be charismatic and a gifted communicator, but when a student enamoured by Keating’s romanticism takes his own life, he seems a mere fool who deserves to take his fall – a teacher of Shakespeare who should have sensed that particular tempest brewing.

Having taught and mentored in secondary schools for many years, this is the seven-strong criteria I’ve devised for identifying excellent teachers.

1. Subject knowledge

The greatest gift we can give our students is authentic knowledge. The more authoritative and erudite we are, the more comfortable we’ll feel and the more effective we’ll be. When we give our best, we tend to draw out the best in others.

Students will rarely forgive their teachers two things: 1) not being twice as smart as the student and their classmates are and 2) acting as if they are twice as smart as they actually are. Pomposity, arrogance and ignorance are instant turn-offs.

2. Passion

As the late Sir Ken Robinson once observed, “When we are passionate about something, an hour passes like it was five minutes. When we lack passion for what we do, five minutes seems like an hour.” Teachers need to inject their specialisms with some spark. Chemistry teachers couldn’t survive without their Bunsen burners, and biology would be nothing without dissections. Passion is infectious, but if a teacher doesn’t convey any excitement around their lessons, their students will soon turn restless or sleepy.

3. Clarity

I recently watched a production of Hamlet with a colleague. Having not studied the play before, I solicited a quick guide and she kept it brief: ‘Is Hamlet mad, bad, or plain sad?’ That curt one-liner provided an excellent framework with which to evaluate the absorbing drama of the play.

The colleague in question takes the view that her learners need everything explained in its simplest form. If she wants them to settle down and take notes, she can’t afford to mumble, equivocate or use words like ‘equivocate.’

4. Love

Ancient Greek has four words for love, and the greatest of these is ‘agape’. To agape another person is to want what’s best for them.

When my students act up, I don’t appreciate their behaviour, but I will still search for that divine spark that remains in every child. We never step into the same rivers or classrooms twice. To paraphrase a former firebrand from Tarsus in one of his missives to Corinth, ‘If we have not agape, we are merely making noises.’

If we don’t care about our students, why should they care about learning?

5. Labour

The hairdresser, Vidal Sassoon, once cautioned his stylists, ‘The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.‘ Teaching back-to-back classes all day to precocious teenagers will never be easy. Those seeking to become real ‘A-Team’ teachers will know that doing so takes time, talent, patience, know-how, and self-belief, plus sheer grit and graft.

6. Creativity and imagination

Aspiring to be an inspirational teacher is, in itself, a triumph of imagination. We must believe that what we impart isn’t merely stimulating and meaningful, but in its own way ‘sacred’.

In the hands of a great teacher, there’s no such thing as a listless list, or a flat formula to memorize.

7. Humour

Is having a sense of humour genuinely a pedagogical prerequisite? After all, there are plenty of excellent teachers whose sense of humour isn’t exactly their strongest suit.

Heed, however, the words of W.H. Auden: ‘Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them made me laugh.

The majority of children and young people will appreciate and love those teachers who are seriously talented and dedicated, but who also don’t take themselves too seriously.

John Lawson is a former secondary teacher now serving as a foundation governor and running a tutoring service; for more information, visit

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