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?


Letter to Southern Indiana Teachers: Join Us for April 1 Teacher Rally for Education

by Jim Lang

Dear Southern Indiana Teacher:

It is Sunday morning and like you I am counting down the final hours of Spring Break before we return to our students and our classrooms.

If you are like I am, you’re beginning to compile The List.

We all have versions of The List, that odd blend of assignments to grade, lessons to plan, phone calls to make, and meetings to attend during the week. If your list is like mine, it often also includes strange lingo that only educators could decipher – ISTEP, CFA, ECA, PD, PLC MTG, AP/IB TEST, and most recently, Accuplacer Test. These are the activities and acronyms that shape our lives.

For years I have used a yellow legal pad for The List, probably a tribute to my dad, a retired attorney. During the particularly busy weeks it seems my success or failure as an educator hinges on how many items I can feverishly scratch off of The List. Sometimes I mutter a satisfied “Yes!” to myself as I strike a line through an activity that was particularly time consuming or painful. Other times certain items linger on The List, simply being relocated or reassigned by a frustrated-looking arrow, a sign that either time ran out or unexpected activities invaded, shoving that item to another day.

As our Spring Break winds down and we begin the eager march to the end of the school year, our lists expand with job and family responsibilities. It is easy to ignore or delete items on The List as we work selflessly to serve our students and families. In my twenty-plus years as an Indiana educator, the one constant in education is this: teachers are the most selfless, noble people I know. We sacrifice our own time, energy, plans, and well being to serve others.

Every great teacher I know would ignore every item on The List in a minute to help one of our students or to serve our school.

It is in this spirit of service that I ask every Southern Indiana teacher to add this item to his or her list for this Tuesday, April 1:

Teacher Rally for Education – Tuesday, April 1 – 4-5:30 p.m. – New Albany Public Library

Yes, I know your Tuesday list, like mine, is likely already full. I am also certain that every activity on your list is essential, meaningful, or special. Your time is in demand, especially this week when grades are due and children and students are returning to their post-Spring Break routines.

I am asking to you find time and space on your Tuesday afternoon list anyway. Squeeze the time and place into the margin of that jam-packed April 1 list. Highlight it. Underline it in red ink. Mark it “urgent” on your phone calendar. Be there. Please.

Here’s why. This year’s election is the most important moment for Southern Indiana students, schools, and our fellow teachers since we helped elect Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz in 2012. And Tuesday’s Rally for Education is an essential first step in continuing the work we began in 2012.

We accomplished something special and necessary in 2012. We joined with Hoosiers from all political persuasions to send a clear message to state government – value our schools, listen to educators, and abandon the education “reform” schemes burdening our students and damaging our schools.

As teachers, we experienced firsthand the damaging effects of Indiana education policy and knew we were headed in the wrong direction. When we explained those issues to Hoosier voters, they overwhelmingly stood with us to send a simple message to state leaders: Stop. Enough. You’re Wrong.

Indiana voters spoke clearly – we value our schools. We support public education.

And the response? A legislative “double down” on bad ideas. Take, for example, the governor’s creation of an unnecessary second education agency with no legislative or public debate at all; or an expansion of the nation’s largest government-sponsored school voucher program that redirects tax money to private schools and to schools not even in our own district; more standardized testing that consumes valuable instructional time, including most recently the Accuplacer test; a state-ordered rush to adopt new academic standards to replace the Common Core Standards that the state ordered us to adopt in the first place; continued disregard for teachers’ voices in the education legislative process.

In short, more wasted time and money with few real results. Meanwhile, Indiana schools are being squeezed financially harder than ever as class sizes grow — some are even considering charging for or eliminating transportation or other elective programs and services – while the State of Indiana pours millions of dollars into standardized testing, failing charter schools, and more layers of government bureaucracy.

No reasonable person could support this agenda or believe it is what’s best for our kids or our schools. No reasonable person could legitimately argue that we should continue down this same path.

This Tuesday provides a new chance to continue what we started in 2012. It is our chance to support Glenda Ritz, who will be speaking at the event. It is our chance to listen to and support pro-education candidates like Dr. Kevin Sue Bailey and Heidi Sellers, candidates for the Indiana House of Representatives; and Chuck Freiberger, candidate for the Indiana Senate. Most significantly, though, it is our chance to gather together as educators to speak and organize for our students, colleagues, and profession.

This election year provides our next, best chance to accomplish something as essential to the success of our students, colleagues, and schools as any lesson plan we ever create – sending educators to the Indiana legislature who actually understand the issue of education and who will provide Glenda Ritz the support she needs to accomplish genuine education reform.

Our work is not yet finished. We must send knowledgeable voices to the Statehouse to speak on our behalf. And we must join together now to initiate that change.

So, I am asking you to find the time in your busy schedule to join us at the New Albany Public Library this Tuesday from 4-5:30. I know The List is cluttered and full. But if your list is like mine, it is full because of your commitment to and love for your students, families, and schools.

If you believe this cause can help you serve your students, families, and schools better, then Tuesday’s Teacher Rally for Education could be the most important item on The List.

Join us. Become the change you want to see.