What makes a great teacher?

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Let us have a look a what makes a great teacher

“What makes a great teacher?” is a general article about the high-level skills a great teacher should have. It is a management summary of essential teaching skills.

This article concentrates on career teachers but it can also serve as a reference point for anyone who teaches, trains or mentors in the private sector. Any extra ideas and constructive comments are more than welcome.

Before continuing, let us look at how dictionaries define teachers.

Merriam Webster

A person or thing that teaches something; especially: a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects.


A person who teaches, especially in a school.

Could these definitions be vaguer?

I also checked their definitions for “teach” and they are equally as vague. Part of the definition in one dictionary even stated that to teach was “to cause or help” learning. To cause? This sounds a little sinister.

I could not find any definition that used the word communicate. Communication is one of the foundations of teaching.

The bottom-line on teaching is a desire to help others improve. This desire must be as automatic as the part of your brain that makes your heart beat and your lungs breathe. If the desire to help others improve moves to the part of your brain that you control, the desire dilutes because you control it.

You must want to help others if you want to be a great teacher.

When you know that your desire to help others is as natural as breathing, the higher-level requirements come into play.

These requirements will fall naturally into place and they are:

  • Subject knowledge
  • Insight
  • Communication
  • Organisation
  • Personal discipline
  • Relationship building

A teacher cannot be a great teacher without these skills.

Subject knowledge

There is little to elaborate on here. A great teacher knows his or her subject area and constantly seeks to improve on his or her knowledge base. Hopefully, the subject knowledge was taught by another great teacher who inspired you to want to learn even more. If your teacher inspired you, you had a great teacher.


The ability to analyse all aspects of each student. Without insight, a teacher cannot assess where students are, where they need to get to and how they will get there. The teacher also needs to assess the skill levels and abilities of every student. There is a Spanish saying “cada uno es un mundo”. “Everyone is a world” is the literal translation. We would say, “We are all different” but the Spanish saying is much more profound. The teacher must see each student as a separate world and try to address his or her needs accordingly. This assessment must be continuous because education is change. Insight applies to all ages. All self-aware humans have needs. Tests do not provide insight. They show what a student can or cannot do. They do not show why a student cannot do something or what the missing knowledge pieces are.


This is at the very heart of teaching. All great teachers are also great communicators. We are talking about communication at all levels: presenting material, giving instructions, interacting with students and peers, controlling the classroom and, where applicable, communicating with parents and guardians.


In crude terms, teaching is a process. If you know where your students are, where they want to be and what they need to learn in order to get there, you had better be organised. Many teachers fall back on a syllabus and blindly follow it through without considering their students. It becomes a mechanical exercise. This type of teacher is the worst there is. Without a doubt, a syllabus is important, but it is no more than a guide for getting from A to B. A great teacher will take a syllabus and make it come to life by organising it around student skills and needs. Every class must be well prepared. All individual work, group work, exercises, tests and assignments must be coherent with what has been learned so far. Organisation is extremely important for young learners because they have a short attention span.

Personal discipline

As a great teacher, you must lead by example. To lead by example, you must have strong personal discipline. The image you project must be credible. Dress well, do not arrive late or with a hangover, control your emotions and above all, be consistent. Students will follow a teacher they respect. If they perceive a lack of personal discipline manifested in a lack of self-respect, they will not respect the teacher. A great teacher commands a classroom. Commanding a classroom is not in a military or dictatorial exercise, it is similar to the way a team coach commands his or her players. If you have your students respect, you will have very few classroom problems.

Relationship building

This is the key to becoming a great teacher. Teachers have to build relationships at four levels: with their students, peers, superiors and parents or guardians. The most important relationship is at student level. A great teacher has a bilateral relationship with every student in the class. A great teacher will know students’ strengths and weaknesses, attitudes, abilities and peer influence. Building relationships has nothing to do with making friends. It has everything to do with open channels of communication. Too many students feel that teachers are only there to tell them what to do. Telling students what to do is certainly part of teaching, but personal communication is equally important. It may feel strange trying to establish a working relationship with young learners but it is just as important as it is with older learners.


Sadly, great teachers are not that common. Too many teachers only see teaching as a job. Some teachers do indeed fit the George Bernard Shaw quote; they were not good enough to do something so they decide to teach it. Begs a big question does it not!

EBC believes that great teachers are born with respect to the primordial desire to help others improve. From our experience in training teachers, we know that the six skill bullet points in the article can be learned.

Teaching is one of the most demanding and rewarding jobs there is. The skills a teacher has are priceless.

  • Subject knowledge
  • Insight
  • Communication
  • Organisation
  • Personal discipline
  • Relationship building

Aside from making you a great teacher, imagine what they will do for your CV or resume.

Want to learn how to teach English from the experts?

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