Teen Voices: What makes a great teacher?

by Jim Lang

In my final week with my AP Language and Composition students, I asked them to participate in a voluntary activity.

I wanted to share some of my students’ viewpoints – their voices – here in the hopes that we can entertain and value their opinions and ideas, too. The task was simple. I asked them to answer five open-ended questions on a survey:

  • What is the biggest misconception about your generation?
  • What one book should every person read, and why?
  • What is your generation’s biggest challenge?
  • What makes a great teacher?
  • How should we improve our schools?

The rules were simple. Participation was completely voluntary. They could choose to respond to all, some, or none of the questions. They did not indicate their identity or grade. They knew that some of their responses would be shared here.

Student Views

“First and foremost, they know their students and want to help them succeed.”

“A balance between compassion and mastery of knowledge.”

“I appreciate when you can never tell if the teacher is having a bad day. He/she should be enthusiastic, but also be able to realize that we’re just high schoolers and we don’t know everything you do. Some people are too smart to teach and think we automatically know what they know, even in an AP class. Some teachers, however, teach as if they are learning along with us…”

“Someone who is so enthusiastic and so knowledgeable about what they do that even students who don’t like the subject matter or find it difficult will be able to succeed.”

“A great teacher is simply a teacher that loves the subject and is enthusiastic. A great teacher teaches his or her students for the sake of learning and not just to achieve a standard or get them good grades. A good teacher wants students to question things and truly learn.”

“A person who understands more than what they are required to teach and finds pleasure and enjoyment in educating young minds.”

“A teacher that gets to know students, creates a fun learning environment, and impacts students’ lives in and out of the classroom with their teaching.”

“What makes a great teacher is a unique person. Almost anyone given the right training could be a teacher, but a great teacher is more than that. To be a great teacher, the individual must be compassionate towards children and be able to understand the problems of students. A great teacher understands the importance of their role in the formation of a student’s life and how they can change someone’s life completely in just a year or two.”

“All a teacher really needs is passion to be great. Trust me, the students see and feed off this desire to educate.”

“The willingness to help students with their own individual problems and the ability to accept the fact that sometimes you’re wrong.”

“Enthusiasm. Encouragement. Understanding.”

“A great teacher loves to teach and is passionate about his/her subject.”

“A person who cares about their job, students, and the future of education.”

“A passion for teaching and a desire to help students truly learn the subject material. A great teacher does not teach to tests, but rather focuses on interesting and relevant subject material. A great teacher has a willingness to stay after class and meet with students to help them, or just to talk. A great teacher encourages his or her students to endlessly pursue a gain of knowledge.”

My View

“Enthusiasm” and “passion” were the two words mentioned the most by my students. Interestingly, most of them distinguished between enthusiasm for students and for the subject matter. I love the fact that they see the importance of both.

It is interesting that in a day when teacher training and effectiveness are more focused on curricular knowledge, today’s teens still understand that truly great educators must first have the ability and personality to relate that knowledge to their students.

That’s the art of teaching. In a day when we are so consumed with “standards” and “accountability,” today’s teens understand more than most that a teacher’s love for his or her students and subject – a quality that cannot really be measured – is still the most essential ingredient for greatness.

Friday: How Should We Improve Our Schools?


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