Reflections on Exceptional Teachers

When I think back on my teachers who were most effective, there is something they all had in common: They seemed excited to be teaching us. Teachers should always be aware of the attitude and energy they bring into class. I promise you—the students are aware of it.

When teachers show up for work, deliver quality lessons, and treat the students well—even when they don’t feel like it—they demonstrate their professionalism. And they earn the admiration of their colleagues.

My daughter has talked for several years about how much she loved her fifth-grade teacher. When I asked her what she liked about this teacher, she responded: “She liked us!” So simple, yet so profound. Kids gravitate to the teachers that like them.

There is a teacher that both my sons had in high school. They both raved about her. When I asked my younger son what he liked about her, he said without hesitation: “She cares so much! She cares so much about her job!” The kids notice—never forget that.

We talk a lot about students being engaged. It occurs to me that one of the hallmarks of an exceptional classroom is the teacher being engaged. Kids love it when their teacher is active, involved, and energized. And they can tell which ones are really into it and which ones aren’t.

In a great classroom, the students aren’t the only learners. The teacher is also a learner. When teachers are curious, when they are vulnerable, when they continue to grow, they provide stronger instruction as well as a great example to their students.

It’s nice when teachers are creative, dynamic, and innovative, but I actually think I prefer patient, flexible, and kind.

I once asked a principal what makes his teacher so awesome. He said she is relentless about trying new strategies or finding resources to help kids understand math. She will do whatever it takes to help them succeed. Exceptional teachers will do whatever it takes!

Good relationships with students usually do not happen accidentally. They are intentionally cultivated by exceptional educators.

Teachers don’t have to be funny, creative, innovative, inspiring, or charismatic. But they have to care about their students and take pride in their work. If they do those two, they will have a remarkable career.

Exceptional teachers teach, and then reteach, and sometimes tutor individually because they realize not every student gets it the first or even the second time.

We can’t control the home environment of our students, but exceptional teachers control their classroom environment. Under their care, the students can feel safe, supported, and loved.

Exceptional teachers don’t need Wi-Fi to engage their students. Technology is a great thing, but the passion of the teachers is always the most important variable in the classroom.

Great teachers make it look easy, but they actually work really hard at it. Greatness never comes without commitment and sacrifice.

The most effective teachers are the ones who realize they’re the most important variable in the classroom.

The legacy of exceptional teachers is not built in their lesson plan but in their conversations with students. The lessons are important, but the relationships are essential. Passionate teachers don’t just inspire their students—they inspire their colleagues. They have the potential to impact the culture of the entire school.

Most exceptional teachers did not start out that way. But they reflected on what worked and what didn’t, they learned from their colleagues, and they always kept their focus on students.

 Every teacher has the potential to be a better teacher.

What do you think makes a teacher exceptional? How do you try to cultivate exceptional teachers?

Danny Steele has served as the principal of Thompson Sixth Grade Center in Alabaster, AL, for the past five years, where his passion has been building a school culture that values connections with kids, fosters collaboration among teachers, and focuses on raising student achievement. In the fall of 2019, he will be an assistant professor of instructional leadership at the University of Montevallo. In 2005 Steele was recognized as Alabama’s Assistant Principal of the Year, and in 2016 he was named Alabama’s Secondary Principal of the Year. He has written two books with Todd Whitaker: Essential Truths for Teachers and Essential Truths for PrincipalsFollow him on Twitter @SteeleThoughts and check out his blog, Steele Thoughts.

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