Reflecting on what makes a great teacher: putting the students first

Daily writing prompt
What makes a teacher great?

This prompt was suggested to me by a fellow blogger (thanks Devang), but as an educator, it is something close to my heart, so was happy to oblige. I may be a college lecturer rather than a school teacher, so I can only look at what I think are the qualities, skills and knowledge required in the education profession. However, I believe there may be some variation on the qualities depending if you work in a school, college or university, but I think there are also some universals. The following is based on my own experiences and my teaching environment.

Be professional

For me, the first thing that is required is to be professional. A good teacher will be knowledgeable about the subject(s) they teach and will come into classes prepared. Its also important that you keep your knowledge and skills up-to-date. When I was studying in France there was an English lecturer (native speaker) who hadn’t returned to the UK in over 20 years. He was pulling up French students for saying things in a way we do now – was so out of touch that he wasn’t aware of current language usage.

Another important aspect of being professional is that you behave ethically. Everyone should be treated fairly, and there should be no bias in how you behave. Teachers need to be role models for their students. We are preparing young people for the workplace so we should be modelling behaviours that are acceptable in the world of work.

Developing students who think for themselves

I believe its important to work with the students and involve them in decisions that affect their learning. At the start of the year I like to sit down with the students to find out how they like to learn. We try different approaches and review, so that we can adapt and use the methods that suit that group best. I teach some subjects year in and year out. Variety is good so I don’t get bored teaching, but every class is different, so what worked last year might not work the same way. I believe it’s actually unlikely to get bored with the same subject as the class experiences will not be the same. Each group has its own dynamic and its important to recognise that and be prepared to adapt to teaching methods that suit each individual group.

To be a good teacher, you need to be flexible and adaptable. Linked to that, you probably also need to be able to think on your feet, to have the confidence to stop what you’re doing when its not working. Its not the first time I’ve realised an approach won’t work and the class gets an impromptu break, so I have time to refocus the lesson.

With post-compulsory/adult education, its important to involve the students in their learning. we can start with how they like to learn, but I will also give them choices about how the content can and should be be delivered on a particular day. That could be something as simple as deciding on the size of groups and who they want to work with, to me saying by the end of the class I want to achieve X, talk through my expectations and criteria they have to meet but then letting them, as a class, decide how they’re going to achieve that, knowing they can ask for help/guidance.

I believe this works as my classes generally feel comfortable asking why we’re doing something and let me know if something isn’t working. A specific example was one of my ESOL classes asking if they could work on a project. They told me their idea, to showcase their own countries to their classmates. I agreed and encouraged their enthusiasm and guided them so, as a class, they set their own objectives for the project, and set ground rules so everyone had to do their own work and couldn’t rely on others in the group. You can read about this project in another post. Their project also contributed to them achieving an extra unit from their studies.

Its important for the teacher to be confident in the classroom, particularly if you want to encourage students to form thar own opinions and to challenge thinking if they disagree. I once remember saying something during a lecture that I knew, and my students should have known was wrong, to see what they did. They just kept writing, so I stopped and asked them if they agreed – we then had a discussion about not taking things at face valve and to ask questions and challenge.

I am very conscious of not presenting my own opinion on something. I’ll present all the facts and the differing opinions, then usually organise some form of activity that gets the students thinking about the different viewpoints so they can form that own opinions. When I was at university studing HRM, we had a lecturer who had very strong political opinions and used the lectern as a soapbox. I was determined when I went into teaching, that I would never force my opinions on others like that. I guess the type of teacher we become is also shaped by examples of the good and the bad; what we want to emulate, and to avoid.

The relationship with the students

Years ago I had a colleague who tried to be a friend of the students but that backfired on her in so many ways, making it very difficult for her to manage the class, particularly when there were issues of discipline or lack of progress/achievement by students.

I would always prefer to get on well with my students, but at the end of the day, I am their lecturer, not their friend and I have a job to do. I’ve always taken the approach that they don’t have to like me (or I, them) but it makes it easier if we can have a good working relationship.

This relationship, like all relationships, is built on mutual expectations which need to be met for a healthy, trusting relationship to develop. Respect and trust need to be earned – both by the students and by me. Yes, I am the teacher, so to some extent there should be respect for the role, but I would prefer to gain their trust and respect because of our interactions.

Students, I believe, want to see that their teachers treat everyone fairly. They don’t have favourites or pick on anyone. That they are supportive and available if they need help. Additionally, they should be able to explain theories, concepts and any instructions clearly so they’re easy to understand. Also, whenever possible, make learning fun. I remember 2 different situations – both comments on the level of noise from my classroom – our Head of Dept at the time commented that he knew the students were having fun learning. The other was a colleague who complained about the noise levels. Having fun is generally not a quiet activity.

Teachers shouldn’t assume students are at fault if and when some don’t get ‘it’ – try to find an alternative way to explain – or get someone else in the class who understands to explain. I’ve seen and heard of situations where a whole class is lost, but the teacher can’t see that this could be an issue with their teaching. Students learn in different ways, so it’s understandable that they may struggle with a particular delivery method.

I’ve not read other posts so as not to be influenced as I share my own thoughts but I would be interested to hear other opinions.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, I would encourage you to sign up to my blog so you know when I next post something.


  1. I think that ‘Developing students who think for themselves’ is an absolute must purpose for any teacher who thinks their job is worthwhile and valuable. Beautiful article Brenda!

  2. I love how you structured this, Brenda.
    …. a teacher for sure😁

    … and everything said so true.
    Wonderful share🤍✨

  3. Brenda, You have all the qualities those I want to see in my university lecturer.
    A highlight from this blog post:
    “To be a good teacher, you need to be flexible and adaptable. Linked to that, you probably also need to be able to think on your feet, to have the confidence to stop what you’re doing when its not working.”
    Thank you so much for sharing.😊

  4. I think the ability to know when to say something, when to let something ride, and to not take personally the actions of admin, students, or coworkers. Sometimes it just is what it is. It is a challenging time to be a teacher but with the support of parents, admin, coworkers, the teacher can teach, be creative and help the students move forward.

    • Very true cupcake. Its really easy to take everything personally -particularly when students hit out but that usually means something is going on with them

      • Teaching the 8 and under is much easier than teaching middle school, high school, and adults. Totally different ballgame.

      • Thanks for listening, Brenda. This will probably be my last year with the public school district. Ready to retire.

      • Enjoy you’re retirement – I’ve still a few years left, but already looking forward to it. So much I want to do

      • I pray good health will stay with us. I also teach online which I will continue to do. Full time retirement will be about 65 or so.

      • I’ll have one class on line in the new academic year. I had hoped to be fully back on campus. That said, I do like the flexibility that online resources provide

      • If you are lucky you are in a school with Admin who are supportive and don’t believe the student because they are afraid of the politics. If not, you leave the school for another or find a new career. A teacher must be patient and keep an open mind.

  5. and you need a sense of humor because sometimes no matter how hard you try, there is someone ready to put you down. It is not for the weak of heart. Thanks for listening.

  6. Be professional and train people who can think for themselves – those are good guidelines for most any job. I love how you said that you present the sides and then stand back. What a great lecturer you must be, Brenda!

  7. I absolutely agree that even if you’re teaching the same content, every class is different. I strive to be a better guide every day, in terms of treating students equally and teaching them to think for themselves. Confidence is also a work in progress, but I agree that it’s important. This was a great read, thank you for sharing. 😁

  8. Amazing stuff Brenda and it is good that as an Educator your role is to educate and offer knowledge to the students by placing them first and having an open door policy on learning as to how the students feel and what helps them to learn so that they excel at everything they do.

    Also, as a Former University Student I always treated the Lecturer with respect and I never tried to befriend any teacher because that is unprofessional. Great tips for those still studying to take note🙌🙏

    • Thank you. I think you hit it on the head – generally students don’t want to be friends and respect the professional boundaries. I guess my former colleague struggled with the distinction between being friendly and being friends.

  9. Hi Brenda, an interesting post. I was a head of science in inner city London schools for many years – twenty plus and I am now burnt out and retired. Sharing your love of a subject, developing pupils skills, knowledge and understanding are certainly very rewarding aspects of practicing as a teacher. Seeing them develop into independent young people able to make their own way and succeed in life is fantastic. That part of teaching is truly rewarding and valuable.

    It’s for me hard to be objective but I personally found much of the other stuff such as the overwhelming amounts of admin soul destroying. Having been through five OFSTED inspections I had really had enough of it.

    • Thanks David. That’s one of the main reasons I decided to stay in the classroom rather than seek promotion. About half of my teaching is for a professional body, with the other half SQA subjects. We have inspections/audits constantly with our professional body and its stressful enough as a teacher/lecturer, I didn’t want that amplified. Plus I see how much stress and pressure our managers are under. I’m happy to stay as a lecturer and 100% in the classroom for the remainder of my working life

  10. Hi Brenda, indeed a refreshing post, especially for those like me who have been on the brink of burnout. it is a privilege, to teach at any level, impacting knowledge, and watching our students bloom, is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching. We want to get along with out students, earn their respect and still maintain our roles as teachers. I am revived.

    • Hello Eisle, I’m glad I could help in a little way. It’s so easy for the pressures and bureaucracy to get to us

  11. I agree that adaptability is so important to our lives as teachers. I also feel your point about being very conscious of what you don’t share about yourself– I also purposely don’t share my views on certain issues, especially politics, which is why I get frustrated when I hear some people saying that teachers brainwash students on different ideas. If anything, we do the opposite– showing them all of the possibilities and opening their minds to new creative ideas, which I guess ties back to adaptability as well. 🙂 Great post!

  12. Loved the title of ‘Developing students who think for themselves’. I believe our education system should produce thinkers not followers.

  13. So many fantastic points on what makes a great teacher. 💞💞💞 Discovering how someone learns best is an important step in teaching them….I even use that question when beginning training of new staff members. Some learn better hands on, others need to observe for a while first. Knowing this and meeting them where they are helps them learn faster and retain the information better.

    • That is so true Dawn. I also think they sometimes bring emotional baggage, so having the time to chat first allows you to assess any walls that have been erected too

    • Thank you. As a teacher myself, I think I was as influenced by bad teachers in terms of what not to do. Thanks for sharing your experiences and opinions

  14. There’s a single part of this post that I don’t agree with! Teaching abroad has totally surprised me in terms of seeing how teacher-student relationships differ in other countries, but I think that your points should be universal!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Veronica. I agree, from my experience of studying and teaching in France (and seeing the difference at University with lecturers/teachers of different nationalities. The classrooms had a platform with the teacher/lecturer’s desk positioned in the middle of the platform. The French lecturers all taught from the platform and the English lecturer seemed happy there too; but we had a lecturer from Spain who refused to work there. There was certainly a lot of social distance between the English and French academics, that the students were reminded of which made them less approachable – students didn’t feel they could ask for help or challenge if they felt something was inappropriate. There was a kind of deference to the lecturer which I feel is sad as it takes away from the rich experience students should have during their studies.

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