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What are the qualities that make up exceptional teaching?
Admittedly it's a topic that is open to many points of view. You can certainly borrow from the wisdom of others to formulate a picture of your own. For example:
- The art of teaching, said Mark Van Doren, is all about assisting discovery.
- Jim Henson reminded us that students are more likely to remember who we are before they remember what we teach them.
- William Arthur Ward said, “the mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, and the great teacher inspires."
- Albert Einstein famously claimed that he never actually taught his students, but simply provided the optimal conditions in which they could learn.
However you choose to define exceptional teaching, there are things that make any good teacher great and any great teacher exceptional.
Here is our view of the 10 commandments of exceptional teaching.
The 10 Commandments of Exceptional Teaching
- It’s About The Students
- Make Safe Environments
- Have Both Passion and Purpose
- Teach From the Heart
- Ask and Encourage Essential Questions
- Talk Less and Listen More
- Students Must Teach Each Other
- Embrace Personalized Learning
- Never Stop Learning
- Care for Yourself Like You Do Your Learners
1. It’s About The Students
It’s perfectly normal for teachers to see students as hungry vessels thirsting to be filled with knowledge. In this case, the best instructors see themselves as “guides on the side.” In other words, they act as facilitators of learning while students take the lead.
They certainly share what they know, but they also understand that they aren’t the focus in the modern classroom. Our job as educators is not to stand up in front of students and show them how smart we are. Instead, our job is to help students discover how smart they can become.
We do this by equipping them with processes that give them the skills they need to lead successful lives in and out of school. In other words, a teacher’s job is to gradually render themselves obsolete by the time their students leave school for good.
If the teacher doesn’t or can’t exude passion, they’ll lose their students. And passion isn’t something you can fake.
2. Make Safe Environments
Learning requires vulnerability and the taking of risks. But doing this can be an uncomfortable and even scary situation for anyone. Students need to know above all else that they can trust those who teach them. That’s why exceptional teaching includes providing learning environments that are emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically safe.
Here are a few things worth considering. First of all, a safe and positive classroom is guaranteed to be a productive one. Second, fostering positive classroom environments lays the foundation for students to build healthy beneficial relationships.
Finally, working in a positive learning space benefits students and teachers both mentally and physically. As a result everyone is happy and healthy, and everyone is prepared for truly authentic learning all year round.
3. Have Both Passion and Purpose
When you want learners to excel, it all comes down to both having and modelling passion and enthusiasm. This means having passion for every part of the process. If the teacher doesn’t or can’t exude passion, they’ll lose their students. And passion isn’t something you can fake.
Students can tell a mile away if a teacher cares or if they’re simply going through the motions. If they sense the latter, they will shut right down and disengage. When that happens, it can be next to impossible to get their attention back again.
The truth is that when it comes to exceptional teaching, passion needs no explanation—it is simply there, and it’s real. The rub is that you either have it or you don’t, but you can also develop it.
4. Teach From the Heart
Exceptional teaching means teaching from the heart in all things because the best teaching is personal rather than formulaic. It comes from who a teacher is inside, what drives them, and how they see the world.
In fact, it’s safe to say teaching means having the courage to explore one’s sense of identity with abandon. Without knowing yourself you can’t fully know your students, and can’t connect with them.
We’re not the only ones our students learn from; they also learn on their own as well as from their peers.
Another key ingredient of teaching from the heart is the willingness to embrace failure. Throughout your career as a teacher, you will occasionally fail and so will your students. The truth is that it isn’t a crime, but failing to learn from it is.
Nowhere does this have more significance than it does in our classrooms.
5. Ask and Encourage Essential Questions
Exceptional teaching is about exploring the unknown, and that exploration begins with asking essential questions. This means focusing on questions that are not simply lectures in disguise, nor that simply ask students to regurgitate information.
Instead, our questions must spark lively discussion and debate among learners, and provoke curiosity that leads to them independently discovering—or even creating—knowledge.
Think for a moment about the “best” question someone has ever asked you. Maybe you were so ignited that finding the answer became a focus of inquiry. It’s also pretty likely that it opened the door to some pretty meaningful and animated discussion.
Our job as educators is no longer just to get the right answers from our students. Although they get marks for having the right answer, it’s just as important to ask the right questions, and even more important to get them to start asking them.
6. Talk Less and Listen More
When it comes to teaching, what we do is as important as what we say. With this in mind, one of the most effective ways of showing students we care is by listening. Besides, if you’re talking you’re not listening, and we can’t do both (regardless of what some people may think.)
A good listener receives information, processes it, gives feedback for clarity, and decides how they will act on it. Good teachers are comfortable with silence. It’s in those quiet, perhaps awkward moments that some of the most productive thinking occurs. Don’t interrupt it.
7. Students Must Teach Each Other
We’re not the only ones our students learn from; they also learn on their own as well as from their peers. Maybe someone has an insight that they hadn’t thought of. Maybe it’s something that they can build on. Either way, it’s exciting to watch students engage with each other in this manner.
Collaborative learning is one of the best experiences we can provide as educators. The reason is that it mirrors how problems occur in the world and workforce outside school. Additionally, it reinforces the idea that one of the best ways to learn is to reteach a new concept to someone else.
If your students can accomplish this, and apply that knowledge within the context of a real-world problem, you know their learning was successful. Not only that, it's more likely to stick with them over time.
8. Embrace Personalized Learning
Every student can learn, but all students learn differently. Some are visual learners while others grasp the abstract; others learn best by reading. Whatever the case, exceptional teaching takes into account that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy.
We've spoken about personalization also in great detail in our bestselling book Future-Focused Learning. In essence, learning becomes strengthened by a relevant connection between the task and the learner. We accomplish this with clear strategies correlating to curriculum, pedagogy, and the learning environment itself, as well as the endless possibilities we have for creating informal learning opportunities.
Exceptional teaching is about exploring the unknown, and that exploration begins with asking essential questions.
Learners have to be given such opportunities repeatedly over extended periods of time. We have to offer them other points of view and make time for them to improve. What this means is that children need lots of practice and exposure to the materials in different ways, and from different contexts and perspectives.
Learning doesn’t always stick the first time, so you have to provide repeated and differentiated experiences which allow time and context for the ideas to be internalized.
9. Never Stop Learning
Teaching is about the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the student, which doesn’t end when the workday is over. It also means realizing that we don't and can't know everything, so instead we model joyful curiosity for our pupils. This is how we teach our children to become lifelong learners.
When we talk about the lifelong learning mindset, we think about cultivating habits as opposed to just achieving goals. The lifelong learning mindset is more than just about the need to learn—it’s also about a desire to learn that lasts long after we leave school.
Think of how we reward progress with a baby taking those first few steps before falling down. We don’t admonish the child for not taking one step more than we expected them to. Instead, we celebrate their achievement with joy and love. We clap for their progress and express gratitude that we were fortunate enough to bear witness. The child becomes happy, encouraged, and determined to do even better.
One of the most important ingredients of exceptional teaching is loving learning. In that sense, we step away from the 9-to-5 attitude and demonstrate a constant willingness to learn and discover no matter we we are. Opportunities to learn exist all around us in many forms and guides; they are what we call "teachable moments." Opening our learners' eyes to these possibilities is our mission, and the great reward we get for becoming teachers.
We must ensure learning is presented as a rewarding journey to students early on. If this happens, they are much more likely to continue wanting to learn as they grow older.
10. Care for Yourself Like You Do Your Learners
We get it; teaching is a busy profession. Sometimes it seems like there simply aren't enough hours in the day to do everything you need to.
You have assignments to grade, tests and lessons to prepare, meetings and workshops to attend, emails and phone calls to return, and a family of your own to connect with.
When in the world are you supposed to find time for yourself in all this whirlwind of activity and expectation?
Let's be clear—making time for yourself is a right, not a privilege. And every educator out there owes it to themselves and their profession to make it happen.
One of the first steps is managing your time efficiently. This includes things like planning the day, sorting tasks according to priority, and keeping an organized system for paper and virtual files. These kinds of strategies ensure you don't get overwhelmed, and can more likely carve out time to care for your own needs.
Another great way to get some enjoyment in a day is by participating in team-building activities with friends or colleagues. Having a support network is crucial to exceptional teaching, especially one that understands the struggles of the profession. Finding time for activities with like-minded people is a great way to enjoy yourself while also boosting skills that can help you as a teacher.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Jan 8, 2019, updated October 8, 2021