A great teacher affects eternity:
she/he can never tell where her/his influence stops.
~ Adapted from Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907
Gifted students are the lighthouses for their teachers in the classroom. As beacons of light, they shine brightly in the learning landscape. When the teachers engage with their students in an ongoing and authentic dialogue, the little Zen masters give honest and open feedback, and light the paths that their teachers traverse. Engaging with student voice is necessary “if we are to realise the democratic, pedagogical, and social aims of education in the twenty first century” (Mockler & Groundwater-Smith, 2015, p. 5). I believe that teachers, school leaders, and system leaders need to engage gifted students in inquiry and school transformation as pedagogical partners.
Let me commence this year’s reflections with student voice. One of my past students, Nathan Wong, a highly gifted Year 12 English student – whom I taught at James Ruse Agricultural High School, a selective co-educational school in Sydney – had shared his musings into what makes a truly great teacher. I reproduce Nathan’s article here – initially published in the newsletter, Gifted Learning, that I used to produce for the school community. I hope you enjoy reading this gifted thinker’s perceptive insights.
What truly makes a ‘gifted and talented’ student? What are the defining qualities of such successful learners? How do they achieve so highly? These are age-old questions which the education profession continues to contemplate.
But from a student’s perspective, there is perhaps a more important not-so-old (pun intended!) question to be considered. What are the qualities that truly make a great teacher, indeed, a ‘gifted and talented’ teacher? What do students today really need in a teacher to help them achieve their potential? Well, besides the obvious skills and knowledge in their particular ‘area of expertise’, I believe there are four fundamental elements which are the essential difference between a teacher who’s simply ‘good’ and a teacher who is simply brilliant.
First and foremost is PASSION. See, a teacher who teaches without passion is, I believe, tantamount to learning out of a monotonous sleep-inducing textbook. I mean, we might as well do away with attending class altogether! But by passion, I don’t necessarily mean becoming all melodramatic and openly testifying love for hydrochloric acid or quadratic equations or Shakespeare (although dramatic voices do really help in this respect, especially in waking us from our necessary midday naps…).
But in all seriousness, teachers really have a significant influence on student motivation. For me, learning from a teacher who enjoys what they do and is visibly interested and proud of the knowledge that they have to impart definitely rubs off a great deal. It certainly commands respect and, to some degree, also inspires a student’s own interest and passion for what he/she is learning.
And this passion, of course, leads on to another essential characteristic I see in a great teacher: FUN! No, again, I certainly do not mean the over-the-top Nutty Professor fun like dressing up as a clown or singing to the latest Wiggles song (as indeed one of my former teachers once did to our horror!). What I’m trying to get at is that great teachers, all academics aside, are renowned among students for their sense of humour and their positively infectious personalities.
See, nothing can be more endearing than a teacher who is prepared to share a joke every now and then or to unexpectedly induce laughter. Teachers who incorporate ‘fun’ into learning effectively build a positive, relaxed and open atmosphere that, no doubt, enhances student learning and interaction. Surely, without this ‘fun’ environment, classrooms would be quite mind-numbingly boring!
But, all jokes aside, when it comes down to the truly academic side of things, I believe great teachers are those who encourage, and indeed CHALLENGE their students, to strive beyond even their potential. This is particularly the case with gifted and talented students.
And as surprising as it sounds, it is personally unsatisfying, and to a certain degree frustrating, to be unchallenged and to be learning the same old material over and over again. Students need teachers who challenge their ideas, teachers who incessantly insist on room for improvement and teachers who take them out of their comfort zones. It is when we achieve something we never thought we could that is most fulfilling and rewarding.
But having said that, great teachers inherently recognise the need to offer guidance to students to encourage them to strive for their goals, and perhaps most of all, to inspire their students to become independent, motivated and successful learners.
Personally, by far the most distinguishing and arguably the most important quality of an influential teacher is the ability to forge a strong, personal CONNECTION with each and every individual student.
Beyond the knowledge and academia, a great teacher is a friend, a role model and quite often, a source of support when the going gets tough. A teacher who can build strong rapport, respect and mutual trust with his/her students is certainly an effective one.
I believe it comes down to a simple matter of give and take. Teachers who are prepared to give students their time, effort, and even life stories, undoubtedly get more from their students in return.
Great teachers are those who are able to transcend the classroom. In their relationships with students, they demonstrate that they too are human, that they are not simply teachers, but people, also on the journey of life and learning.
Blake, W. (1785). Age Teaching Youth. (The painting is on display at the art gallery, Tate Britain, in London.)
Mockler, N., & Groundwater-Smith, S. (2015). Engaging with Student Voice in Research, Education and Community. Switzerland: Springer.
Wong, N. (2008). What makes a truly great teacher? Gifted Learning, 2, 7.
The article is reproduced with the permission of the author.