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Explainer: what makes a good teacher

3 February 2017

From judging what's best for the class and individual to finding the 'sweet spot' for learning, Dr Nicole Mockler explains teaching traits and skills.

Teaching is a profession that often alludes us. While we might know a great teacher when we see them in action in the classroom, our understanding of the skills, attributes and qualities of these professionals remains limited. 

Students setting out to learn and adopt the best teaching strategies already hold beliefs about how teaching is conducted, developed through their own school experiences.

There is a lot more to good teaching that goes on behind the scenes.
Dr Nicole Mockler, School of Education and Social Work

Whether it be watching an expert maths, science or technology teacher, we have picked up ideas about what does and doesn’t work during our own schooling. The problem is that at school we only ever see what goes on from a student’s perspective, which is what is happening on one side of the teacher’s desk.

Unfortunately, this also informs our wider public view that suggests teachers work short hours and take advantage of the school holidays. 

Planning, assessing, reporting and consideration of the many and varied need of young people in classrooms are constant demands on teachers.

What defines a great teacher?

The answer to what makes a great teacher lies in educational psychology. Coined by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, proximal development refers to the space between what a learner can do without help, and what they can do with it.

In other words, students will already know something about what it is that the teacher is teaching. The good teacher can discern this and build upon it.

A great teacher knows and understands their learners well enough to shape the learning to fit the zone of proximal development. They do this by gathering evidence of learning from their students, in the form of written work, and group and one-on-one conversations to inform their judgement.

How do you teach in the ‘proximal development’ zone?

Learning in the zone of proximal development means that the learning is hard enough to be challenging but not so hard that the learner feels defeated and tempted to give up.

The tricky thing is that the zone isn’t the same for everyone in any class.

A great teacher differentiates the curriculum by varying the content and process of learning, the pieces of work that students produce to demonstrate their learning, and the pace of learning to ensure that students work in their zone of proximal development.

In this way the great teacher nurtures resilience and persistence so that students don’t give up if the task is challenging, or become disengaged because the task is too easy.

Connecting parents to the classroom is crucial

Great teachers enter a partnership with parents. They explain what happens at school in an accessible way for parents. They can relieve parents’ anxiety about big questions: is my child doing OK? How can I best help them at home?

They may also need to realize that for some parents, school was a challenge, and that they may need help in understanding their child’s progress.

Subject matter expertise is important but it’s not enough. Great teachers genuinely like children and want to get to know them.

They understand that education is about much more than the transmission of knowledge, and they’re committed to creating the ideal conditions for learning, for real understanding, for every child in their class, every day.

Dr Nicole Mockler is a senior lecturer in education from the Sydney School of Education and Social Work

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