10 Characteristics of Highly Effective Teachers

People seem to like lists. We all make them. Many blog take the shape of a list. My personal favorite is Lindsay Clandfield‘s Six things blog edited by him and open to all to contribute with their own lists. These are sometimes interesting, sometimes purely entertaining, though provoking or infuriating. Just like a classroom. ;-)

The other day I went to a small teachers’ conference in Ajman, which is one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates. This is one of the lesser known but more charming parts of the country with real character and some fantastic teachers. (This is actually something I’ve come to realise during my visits to remote places: there is always a gem of a teacher wherever you go, no matter how small or backward that place might be. These are the teachers who make me stop and think about the privileges I enjoy. They are the ones who make me want to give and do more.) At this conference, Christine Coombe (one of the most influential TEFL-ists in the region, with motivations similar to mine) handed out a list, which made me think at the time and one which I’ve kept coming back to.

Christine, with a colleague of hers, Lisa Barlow, made a list of the 10 most important characteristics of highly effective EFL/ESL Teachers.

1 A ‘Calling’ for the profession

This is supposed to be the most important. And this is what is causing me the most headache at the moment. To accept the fact that someone might be doing this job as a job for the perks and the advantages without a real commitment is a real hindrance  in achieving my aim of helping teachers become better professionals. How do you train teachers to develop a calling for the profession? Is this something I can possibly aim at?

2. Professional knowledge

I tend to feel that a lot of what is considered professional knowledge is in easy-to-assess tests, like TKT or CELTA. Does he know the different kinds of assessments, and the present perfect? Yes, great, then he’s good. Professional knowledge is a matter of pride among teachers. Local teachers make a lot of effort to speak better English and expect ‘native teachers’ to explain random weird ideas they learnt 30-40 years before. I personally attribute little importance to this aspect. Long gone are the days when a clever teacher taught a stupid child about the big-big world.

3. Personal qualities

Yeah, yeah. Here we go again: the teacher as the frustrated (failed) actor, the clown, the village idiot… Well actually no, I think there are much more important personal qualities we tend to ignore these days and we shouldn’t: honesty, emotions, intelligence, reliability, enthusiasm, curiosity. These are all characteristics we use to define effective learners, but the more these qualities are shared by their teachers, the more likely it is that they get what they want. It’s always going to be more entertaining to watch Friends, or whatever it is teenagers watch these days, than to attend an English class.  So, why compete? Establishing an efficient and mutually beneficial working environment is much more helpful I believe….

4. With-it-ness (McEwan, E K 2002. How to survive and strive in the first three weeks of school)

This is an exciting addition to the list. The essential skill of being able to envisage possible classroom and curriculum events. Planning with an awareness of the objectives and the conditions. This is definitely an acquired skill that you can get better with every new year, school and group. This is why every employer should be wary of teachers who do a year or so and then move on regularly. They will not have this understanding of their actions within the bigger picture. It’s arguable of course how important this is, but if we see education – especially public schools – as a continuum with precise expectations, it is important to have teachers who understand them. This is especially true if we want to liberate teachers from prescribed teaching materials and expect them to develop customised tasks for their students.

5. Instructional Effectiveness

To be an effective teacher you have to teach well.  Hard to argue. The interesting thing about this is that this demands again a very high level of flexibility and a wide range of expertise from the teacher, since something that may be a piece of cake with one group of students can prove to be an absolute nightmare with another. Even if I planned the same lesson for two different groups, they could and they should never be the same. So, this is again a hunch, not more. This seems to work with this group so let’s go with it, but heaven forbid I would try it with the other group.

6. Good communicator

Well, this is pretty obvious, and necessary not only with students, but with teachers, managers and parents. Communication is not always direct, which is difficult. Other teachers and management hear about you from students and parents.  It’s all a  vicious circle, and to communicate your message well in all directions is a bit of a juggling act.

7. Street smart

Know about who you teach. This is sometimes perceived as the great advantage of having local teachers or teachers who come from the same-similar context. While I admit that this has its advantages, I think it has just as many disadvantages. There is a false sense of mutuality between the local teachers and students against the foreign teacher in the school. All those dismissive nods from the colleagues and students are the same, really.

Sometimes blowing up a little bit of a bomb with a completely innocent face can be very helpful. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my students about respecting women and giving them rights and me doing the cooking and the washing up. I loved it. In many situations you are expected to be the foreigner. Embracing your foreignness is one way of being successful. You are not expected to be one of them. Why try? Clearly, you don’t want to be rude or hurt anyone but there are several stages between the extremes. Don’t do anything that would offend you if it was the other way round but don’t expect them to eat the goulash as you serve it, what’s more, they can even be allowed not to like goulash.

8. Willing to go the extra mile

This is  closely linked to the first one. If you follow a calling, you will go the extra mile. Otherwise you won’t. There is no way of making someone do more than what they are paid to.

9. Lifelong learner

The excitement of Amazon delivering yet another book about ELT, Russell Tarr recommending another mindboggingly  good link. A conference near you, a conference on the web, all the tweets from last night. If you are still excited about any of these things, we’re talking about you. If you watch a movie and 2 minutes into the film you start thinking about how you could use this in class, this is about you. Most teachers start forgetting what they learn when they start their education, and will have forgotten why they are standing in front of a class by the time they have finished. They are the life-long forgetters. Heaven save students from them.

This is not about the ‘best method’ the ‘best book’  ‘the greatest author’, ‘the best publisher’,  it’s about you and where you are in the wonderful process of your professional development

10 Life outside the classroom

Your life outside the classroom is the bread and butter you bring to your students and re-contextalise to feed their learning appetite.

This was just a very quick rambling, a sort of thanks to all the teacher trainers who try to make teachers realise what it takes to be good at their profession. It’s my personal thanks to all the wonderful teachers and trainers who helped me understand what is so magical about standing in front of a group of students or colleagues. (And perhaps why I get angry and frustrated when I see mediocre and useless talks and presentations by people who know less then their audience…)

10 thoughts on “10 Characteristics of Highly Effective Teachers

  1. An interesting peice. Thank you.
    There is a myriad of research out there but seems a lack of general interest by teachers,so it is good to see another professional passionate about it. We do get carried away with subject content and resources. I have been lucky enough to work with the Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme (TEEP) and you may want to check out their website
    I must have started blogging around the same time as you, although not as effectively, but you may want to check out my thoughts as am exploring some of the ideas raised above.

  2. Hi Tamas,

    Thank you for sharing your insights. It is wonderful to communicate with like minded teachers, and from your list it seems that you are very passionate about your chosen path – which I think is the number 1 quality to have as a teacher – something that can not be taught!

    I am excitedly awaiting your next post!

    Shonah :-)

  3. Great post, exactly what TEFL blogs are for- thinking aloud.

    I don’t particularly share your frustration with TEFL teachers who are unprofessional, especially considering the unprofessional conditions many of them put up with. I just see that as a practical problem to take a problem solving approach to as a writer and occasional teacher trainer and ELT manager, e.g. by making sure all CPD makes their lives easier as well as their students’ classes better. Although I put in loads of hours myself I do that because I find it rewarding and have some vague hope of it leading to better things. If the other teachers just put in 40 hours a week (usually with less pay and job security than admin staff, even in the same organisation), they and their students are probably missing out on something but I can totally understand their position

  4. “The teacher and parents are the fascilitator between the child and his environment. The environment aids growth, the child does all the work.” And so it goes, many teachers and parents are battling it out with one another on who are to be more responsible for students’ intellectual and academic development. When it comes to pointing fingers, either the school or teachers get them usually because these days, education is so expensive, parents have to sacrifice so much time to get that extra to give their children the best programme. So if their children do not perform, it is a big disappointment and usually teachers, playing the key roles in academic guidance, have to be ready for whatever results the students produce.

    No. 7 is a great point. Students no longer come to school with zero knowledge what the world is like outside their home environment.

  5. Hi Tamas

    Just came by to visit your blog. I see you’re developing a thing for lists! Addictive, isn’t it?
    I like this list, especially number 7 and the “with-it” one too, which is quite interesting. I also believe in that “extra mile” but alas I know too many people who won’t make the first mile, let alone the extra one…
    Thanks, and well done on making a good start on the blog. It’s coming together really nicely!

  6. Hello Tamas
    I’m so happy to have you in my PLN and to receive your blog through my reader. I feel pretty good about my standing as far as your list goes. I have been avidly reading posts on blogs and microblogging on Twitter. All with the idea that I will continue to learn something from my peers, that I will continue to be passionate about my work (BTW not EFL,) and that I can help the students to learn on a case by case basis. You wrote, “Even if I planned the same lesson for two different groups, they could and they should never be the same.” I couldn’t agree more. Every year brings a new classroom personality to work with. That personality takes on the shape of the learners, with the most dominant interests prevailing to a certain extent. I remember the year I had huge science interests in the room. This meant we did a lot more science directed learning. Other years we have seen lots of arts and crafts or literacy learners. The ELL students I have had in class have had their own varied learning styles and interests.
    The bomb I want to set off in the classroom this year is the one where everyone is going to learn as much as they can through working with each other and trying their best. I have not adequately emphasized this in the past, just touched on it each day and not with the determinations and confidence that I want to impart to the learners this time around.
    As @MissShonah said, I too am looking forward to your next post.

  7. I’m from Visakhapatnam, India. September 5 every year is celebrated as Teachers’ Day to honor the demised n greatest teacher & former President of India. On this occasion, being an Academician, I’m to deliver a lecture on the requisites of an effective teacher. Your material is awesome. ThanQ.

  8. Good and brief writing which encompasses all qualities of a good teacher.

  9. A good teacher discovers, adjusts, learns,improves and constantly introspects.He/She never imposes but inspires, innovates, involves, induces, inquires, invests and impresses.Irritation on the part of a teacher is an infecting vice.In short, a good teacher radiates,redirects and recreates.The abilities of acceptance and tolerance are two virtues in the hands of a teacher.

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