What makes a great teacher?

Over the last 25 years I’ve worked with hundreds of different teachers and had the privilege of watching hundreds of lessons in the schools I’ve worked in and supported. My children have had a quite a few teachers now and I have their perspective too. Without doubt, it is fair to say that there is a range but right at the top of the pile, some teachers are simply exceptional. These are the teachers everyone raves about; you’d love them to teach your children; they inspire, enthuse, make learning accessible and challenging and get great results as well. At KEGS, they become ‘legends’. For me, they are the profession’s superstars; the people I look up to and strive to emulate.

I may never be an exceptional teacher – but I’d like to be better! So, as the new term approaches, I’ve been thinking about the very best teachers I’ve known. At first, they are all seem so idiosyncratic in their approach; uniquely charismatic and impossible to copy. But, if we are aspiring to join them, is there anything that they have in common that we can learn from and put into practice in our own lessons?

Well, actually, yes. I’m sure there is proper academic research in this area, but based purely on my subjective evaluations, here is my list:

1) They are drivers: Almost above all else, I’d say this is the key characteristic. They are standards-setters, never happy with mediocre work or sloppy thinking; always pushing every child to go further, to aim higher. This manifests itself through classroom dialogue, the inherent challenge in lessons, routinely giving challenging and engaging homework and so on. They are relentless in pursuit of excellence and their language with students is infused with this sense of urgency and drive: come on, there is another level; you can do it. Some have a glass half-empty demeanour; for some the glass is always nearly full….but the effect is the same.

2) They nurture student-teacher relationships based on genuine mutual respect, where there is no argument about expected standards of behaviour. They achieve this in different ways – sometimes through the gravitas of maturity and experience; sometimes through amazing warm, interpersonal interactions with every child – but they create an environment where learning always thrives and there is a sense of the teacher and their students enjoying each other’s company. Their rapport with students is palpably warm, friendly and trusting.

3) They take joy in going off piste.. using deep subject expertise to go beyond the syllabus, inspiring students with their passion and their capacity to make connections and to tell stories or give examples that bring it all alive. At the same time, they take exams really seriously…. It is not one or the other. Exams are not the be all and end all – they include all the ‘fun stuff’ as well – but if you want an A*, you’d be in safe hands.

4) They celebrate the intrinsic reward and motivating power of learning and achieving and use this to great effect. To varying degrees, they have the ability to explain complex concepts in ways that make sense; they ask good questions and give really good feedback; they are usually experts in the use of AfL (even if they don’t always call it that); however it is done, students feel that they are learning; they know where they stand and feel confident about the process. This is reward and motivation enough.

5) They are principled about people, about learning and work with integrity. This means that they do things for the right reasons – usually self-effacing and not the ‘big ego’ type. They are learners, happy to explore new ideas to develop their practice, but always in a way that captures the spirit; ie they are not slaves to the tick box or the OfSTED crib sheet; they embrace change with integrity, with passion – or not at all.

It is obviously hard to capture – and some of the idiosyncrasy gets lost in the generalisation. But if we adopt the right attitudes and embrace the challenge, I don’t think it is unrealistic to meet these standards. The hard part is to manage them all. Crucially, even the greatest teachers are not at their optimum day in, day out…. but their routine core practice is so strong that they never fall too far from their peak.


See also:  Creating the conditions for great teachers to thrive

The Great Lessons Series

1. Probing  2. Rigour  3.Challenge  4. Differentiation 5. Journeys 6. Explaining  7. Agility 8. Awe 9.Possibilities 10. Joy


  1. Excellent choices! Too seldom I hear teachers even talk about intrinsic motivation – yet that is such an important part in learning. Somehow balancing the requirements of education as an institutionalized force (transferring the culture to the next generation) and the joy of exploring new ideas (preparing students for the big unknown, i.e. future) creates the greatness in teaching. How could we help more teachers achieve that in their daily practice?

    Thank you for this wonderful post!


  2. I find this post deeply affirming. Thank you for putting into words the things that make me so proud to be an exponent of the teaching profession. Let’s hope we can get some of this kind of talk onto the national education agenda this year!


  3. How often do we hear “If only you could put it in a bottle and market it….” Think at least you’ve gone as far as listing the ingredients on the label. Sharp and perceptive distillation of essentials. Says a lot about the perspicacity of the observer/headguruteacher.


  4. […] If the handcuffs of education were removed, how would the good teacher evolve into greatness? Would lines of good and great still remain blurred? Would they flourish into innovation? Perhaps offer alternatives for us all? Truly promote a love of learning without the restrictions of examination dogma? Perhaps a great teacher may become too abstract and lose sight of greatness? Sherrington provides his analysis here. […]


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