George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Heart of Teaching: What It Means to Be a Great Teacher

The Heart of Teaching: What It Means to Be a Great Teacher

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Heart made with hands

What does it mean to be a great teacher? Of course credentials, knowledge, critical thinking, and all other faculties of intelligence are important. However, a great teacher should be much more than credentials, experience and intelligence.

What lies in the heart of a great teacher?

You are kind: a great teacher shows kindness to students, colleagues, parents and those around her/him. My favourite saying is “kindness makes the world go around”. It truly changes the environment in the classroom and school. Being a kind teacher helps students feel welcomed, cared for and loved.

You are compassionate: Teaching is a very humanistic profession, and compassion is the utmost feeling of understanding, and showing others you are concerned about them. A compassionate teacher models that characteristic to the students with her/his actions, and as a result students will be more open to understanding the world around them.

You are empathetic: Empathy is such an important trait to have and to try to develop in ourselves and our students. Being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes and see things from their perspective can have such a powerful impact on our decisions and actions.

You are positive: Being a positive person, is not an easy task. Being a positive teacher is even harder when we’re always met with problems with very limited solutions. However, staying positive when it’s tough can have such a tremendous positive impact on the students and everyone around us. Looking on the bright side always seems to help make things better.

You are a builder: A great teacher bridges gaps and builds relationships, friendships, and a community. Teachers always look to make things better and improve things in and outside of the classroom. Building a community is something a great teacher seeks to do in the classroom and extends that to the entire school and its community.

You inspire: Everyone looks at a great teacher and they want to be a better teacher, they want to be a better student, even better, they want to be a better person. A great teacher uncovers hidden treasures, possibilities and magic right before everyone’s eyes.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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elena's picture

This article is what every teacher must read and understand what their profession really means and stands for. You are definitely a builder! Teachers set the foundation of a society and I am so glad you pointed out these traits which are usually not listed in the job requirement but in fact is essential to possess is in this profession. Possessing all these traits is good but it is also important to rub these traits off on the students.

Miss Dee's picture

I really enjoyed this article and I have also learnt so many things that I wasn't aware of, for bettering my teaching. However, in the aspect of "EMPATHY"...how do I become emphatic for students who do not open up about their situations or even share their problems with anyone??? Even when you try to talk to the student, due to the fact that you have noticed some unwanted/weird behavior from the student.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

This is why we must learn to develop ways for students to help improve their own lives from within. We have been so caught up in the mythical genetics models or more fixed abilities and Gardner's approach of teaching from outside the student, we have lost the ability to look for and help students use many environmental variables they can develop to help them change and improve from within. We need to begin showing students how we are really all very equal but greatly affected by our individual environments. For my younger students I let them all know in little ways how we live in many different areas where some students may have nice flat roads to travel, while other students may have more hills and curves, and deep holes to cross over. I tell them this will make it harder for some students. I will even draw this on the board. However, I will also tell them, "that in time, we can all begin to reach where we want to go". I use little expressions like this and try to even show how all of us have many different environments at home that may cause to worry and be anxious also. I could relate to those students more so than many of my more middle class peers who did not face my obstacles. So we need to realize how all of us are very equal but greatly affected by so many things around us that take up real mental energy from our lives. Above all we need remove the false idea we are just naturally good at something or not so good in other areas.
I recognize that my second variable/tool of my learning theory is also at work among even my very young students. This is where students have yes, (contrary to our present definition of average stress) many layers of mental work from many past, present, future - fears, anxieties, yes even needs, and many other SD's from accumulated weights and values they have developed which create and maintain layers of mental work or -real layers of average stress that "take away real mental energy" from thinking, learning, and motivation to learn. For my younger students, this second variable/tool is the improper pace and intensity in approaching newer mental work or trying too hard. More secure students from more stable environments not only enjoy lower layers of average stress we also enjoy from this a more proper dynamics of approaching newer mental work more slowly with more reflection and thought. The higher our layers of average stress, the more this feeds into improper pace and intensity of approaching newer mental work or trying too hard. This exacerbates or intensifies our present layers and hurts further our thinking, learning, and motivation to learn. For boys this becomes much worse, for they may be transferring the false idea of trying hard to mental work, which causes them to apply much more effort to their work and hurt more so their thinking and learning. This is why I teach all of my young and older students to slow down when approaching a newer mental work, I even model this to my younger students in first through 3rd grade. As we gain mental frames or skills for a work, our pace and intensity will increase naturally and will help maintain the same enjoyment and "motivation to learn". This is the proper way for all students to approach newer mental work, contrary to Galton who preached succeed by "ability and effort". I feel his teachings may have created much more stagnancy in students especially from lower areas of society from this more improper teaching.
Yes, we all have many different anxieties, and I show this in little ways as I teach my older students and how those anxieties do hurt thinking, learning, and motivation to learn. I show them that these anxieties are like little bushes and trees and rocks that make learning and motivation harder for some of us who have those obstacles to cross each day. We need to also now, teach our older students more how our individual environments do create many different amounts or layers of mental work that take up real mental energy from thinking, learning, and motivation, not genetics. We need to help all students and parents understand that we can all slowly begin to understand, resolve, change a weight or value that may be creating "needless layers of mental work" to slowly begin, more permanently reducing and preventing like mental frictions or layers of mental work from occurring in the future. This then provides my first variable/tool in helping students from different socioeconomic areas have hope of slowly changing and improving their lives over time until they arrive where they want to go in time. This is also combine with the first admonition, that we are all very equal but have very different roads to travel from our individual environments.
Oh, we cannot simply relax or use meditation to lower layers of mental work or average stress. This is a placebo. When we relax and/or use meditation, we may feel wonderful, but when we attempt a new mental work, that one new mental work turns back on our mental faucet of mental energy, which then turns on and feeds all of those other layers of real mental work we were dealing with in the first place.

Ava's picture

Thanks for sharing this lovely post! I just joined this community and I'm absolutely loving it! Cheers!!

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Miss Dee, You identified a major problem that is challenging to solve. I believe there is no one solution but if all educators take Rusul's advice in The Heart of Teaching article, I believe students will begin to open up with educators more. I also believe that educators in all grades, but especially younger grades, should conference with parents to help identify when social/emotional things may be getting in the way of a chid's development and learning. I work closely with our school counselor to conference with parents when we believe it would be beneficial for certain students to speak with trained adults to help them solve and deal with social/emotional issues. Sometimes this means our counselor has a lunch group of students for several weeks. Or it may mean she meets individually with a students. Sometimes it requires one of us to recommend to the family outside counseling should be sought ought to help the student manage his or her social emotional learning. I have found that when done in the elementary grades parents are much more likely to seek out the counseling. I believe once that connection with counseling is made, we are likely to see students who are much more able to manage issues and more likely to seek out support in the future.

JeF's picture

I enjoyed reading this article. One might think that by having the course credentials, knowledge, critical thinking, and all other faculties of intelligence is all you need to be a great teacher, but they are wrong you need way more things. What we need to be what is described as a great teacher, is to be kind, compassionate, positive, to inspire others and many other things. Having the knowledge is nothing if you don't have a good heart towards your students. Show them that you are there because you love what you do as a teacher.

Megan Leonard's picture

This article is such a wonderful reminder of what we should strive to be as educators. This year, my school is putting a large focus on PBIS measures and basing all target behaviors on three positive personal standards. I believe this shift has really put a great focus on the heartfelt characteristics listed in this article for both staff and students.

Brooke G.'s picture

I totally agree with you. The fact of the matter is that education stems from us, the teachers. If we do not understand what we expect out of the students, then the students will not understand. We have to have the right idea of how to be the best in order to get a good outcome. The outcome that we are trying to reach as teachers is to help students grow as students, but most importantly as individuals!

ems9237's picture

I enjoyed this article very much because it gave the ways teachers should be around their children and it also shows what it does mean to be a teacher. Students deserve to be respected as we should, and they deserve to be taught with nothing but heart. I loved the points that were given because it is a reminder why I chose this career path and I should continue to do what I love not for me but for the children.

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