WHAT MAKES A GREAT TEACHER IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

Observations and opinions from a 26 year old teacher from Ireland

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Aristotle*.  C.S Lewis*. Frank McCourt*. Annie Sullivan*. Albert Einstein*.  All prestigious teachers, amazing educators and extraordinary human beings.  What was their secret? What makes a great teacher? These well-established lecturers have had a major impact on pupils in the past; would they be as effective in the present day classroom?

Across the world, teachers are coming under increasing pressure and scrutiny from pupils, parents and educational officials. Teachers are being blamed for dramatic global decreases in educational standards and statistics. Are the standards of teachers dropping in general? In this blog, we will examine the main characteristics of an exceptional teacher in the 21st century.

1) Teaching with respect, and not fear.

I believe there are two types of teachers. Those who teach with respect, or those who teach with fear. There are times when I expect total silence in a classroom, other times I disapprove of it. People forget who we are teaching in our classrooms. Children. Children are not supposed to sit, stuck to their chairs, furiously taking down notes that the educator is scrawling endlessly on the whiteboard, silenced for fear of retribution from this person. A classroom should be an innovative, creative hub where students are happy, enthusiastic and excited to ask questions and take part in class discussions. If your pupils respect you, they will listen, engage and prosper without needing to be asked. This is not an easy feat to accomplish but it is much more effective and competent then the other method, teaching by fear.

I have observed classrooms where pupils did not speak until spoken to, listened intently, took notes without questioning and barely moved in their seats. Some teachers would consider this the ideal classroom; I would consider this the ideal robot factory. So why are the children so docile? Because sitting and listening is a far better option then the repercussions of defying the teacher. I know this particular teacher who I was observing, had spent countless lessons drilling in the importance of being silent in class, not misbehaving and going through the general “rules and regulations” of the classroom. This teacher’s chosen tactic was to scream, shout, instill fear in the very children they are supposed to be inspiring, and generally bullying them into submission. I have also been told and overheard on many occasions, that this teacher’s pedagogy was considered amazing and that is was fantastic that their classroom was always so quiet. I have observed many lessons like this and while in school had many teachers who followed this type of protocol.

Both tactics can be effective, but what classroom would you rather be in? Earning pupil’s respect is one of the most essential characteristics to becoming a successful teacher, and the following traits are interlinked with this.

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2) Having a sense of Humor.

Having a sense of humor is extremely important to gain your pupils respect, make them feel at ease and create an engaging learning environment. Due to my lifestyle and work situations, I have worked as a substitute in many schools and have had a great deal of experience with new classes and pupils. The first interaction between teacher and class is severely important, and will often set the tone for the future relationship. Students will always test teachers in their first encounter. They will try to ridicule you, embarrass you and in general test the boundaries. If you can make light of this situation, crack a few jokes and retaliate with your own witticism, pupils will feel more relaxed and comfortable in your company.

Obviously it is still very important to set certain boundaries and make sure that the pupils don’t take advantage of the situation. Using the right balance of humor, wit and authority is extremely effective and creates a lighthearted environment that pupils enjoy and respond too. The days of standing in front of a classroom full of children, writing notes on the board are long gone. Why should children listen in class, when they can look under the table at their smart phones with HD screens and be completely enthralled? Teachers need to create a learning environment that pupils want to be involved in, and having fun in the classroom is a good start.

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3) Adaptation

In this fast paced and changing world, teachers need to stay up to date with new teaching techniques and pedagogies. As discussed in the previous point, children have a great deal  more external stimulation than previous generations. It is a proven fact that the human attention span has dramatically decreased over the last number of years.

Teachers can no longer get away with boring lessons filled with teacher talk and little pupil interaction; they also have to be entertainers. I know I will get ridiculed for this statement but it is true. Average class times last from thirty to sixty minutes. That is a long time to keep a students attention. We as teachers must change and adapt to make our lessons more interactive, engaging, stimulating and interesting. Our lessons need to be more exciting than the latest blog on buzzfeed or video on youtube. Education and learning is a two-sided coin and I constantly learn from my pupils about my own teaching style and delivery. It is essential to incorporate new ideas and concepts into our classroom to suit the ever-changing human mindset.

4) Being Human

Teachers have always been highly regarded in society. In Ireland in the 1900’s the tier of respect and discipline in society would rank, priests, teachers, and police. Teachers are often put on a pedestal and seen as an “elite” member of society. People sometimes forget that teachers are humans too, and showing this side of you is important.

Pupils will respect someone they can relate to and building a good rapport with your class is essential to being a great teacher. There is obviously a thin line between being their friend and being their teacher but it is a line that can be muddled at times. If you discuss your interests and hobbies with your class, you can also find out what they are interested in, which you can then incorporate into your teaching. Last year while working in England, I discussed angular motion and velocity using an angry bird*. themed lesson. The pupils were engaged, interested and enthusiastic about completing their homework that was two levels of the game!

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5) Remembering that your students are human too

Treating each pupil as an individual is essential to becoming a great teacher. Children can easily get lost in the vast sea of statistics and numbers. Each student is different to the next, and treating him or her as unique is crucial. It is essential that each child feels special and important, because they are. This goes beyond the academic protocol and onto a personal level. There will be days that some students are not as receptive, are tired, are having a bad day etc. It could be to do with something in school, something at home or something we have no idea about, they key is to be understanding. I always encourgae my students to come to me for help or a talk whenever they like.

One of my proudest moments as a teacher was when a student came to me distressed last year. He had been distracted in class and was noticeably down. He had been having girlfriend problems and needed someone to talk to. We had a great chat, discussed the pros and cons of his relationship, and he left the room in high spirits. His appreciation of me taking time out to chat with was astounding and he was a lot happier in himself in the coming days.  Being sincere and showing understanding of pupil’s everyday problems goes a long way in becoming a great teacher.

Do you agree with the above statements? Please feel free to leave comments and opinions below.

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One comment

  1. Conor · February 16, 2015

    Great article Cathal. Keep em coming.

    Like

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