What Makes A Math Teacher “Great”?

Thinking back on my own experiences as a student myself and also on conversations that I have had with students over the years, I have been reflecting on what it means to be a great teacher.  What qualities does a teacher possess that makes students call that teacher “good” or even “great”?  What kind of teacher do students point to as someone who changed their lives and their perspectives and their way of thinking for the better?

Competence:

The first and probably most essential quality of a good teacher is competence, both in the subject and in the craft of teaching.  Great math teachers understand their material deeply and can explain it in multiple ways. They build on students’ previous knowledge and can point to future applications of the mathematics they are teaching.  They plan lessons that are purposeful, well-organized, and that engage students in building a strong conceptual understanding.  They can diagnose student misconceptions and address those misconceptions with clear examples and explanations.

Learning goals are clearly understood, feedback is timely, and assessments and grading policies are fair. The classroom is well-organized and provides an atmosphere conducive to learning. Classroom policies are clearly explained and consistently enforced. The teacher is in charge of the classroom and the students respect his or her expertise and authority.

Caring:

Students want a teacher who cares about them as individuals.  In addition to that, a great math teacher must also show students that they will do everything in their power to help each student be successful in their math class.  One way this caring is demonstrated is by purposefully building relationships, having conversations both in and outside of class, finding out about students’ interests, attending their extracurricular events, etc.  Another way a teacher demonstrates caring is by working as hard for their students as they expect the students to work for them.  Great teachers clearly show that they are putting forth a great deal of effort to make the mathematics they are teaching interesting, challenging, and yet accessible to any student willing to work for it.  Caring teachers do not allow their students to settle for mediocrity.  They challenge their advanced students and provide extra encouragement and support for the strugglers. Great teachers tell students why they are doing what they do in the classroom so that their students know that what the teacher is doing is for their benefit.

Students respect and learn from competent and caring teachers.  A competent teacher earns their respect and a caring teacher earns their loyalty.  But one more ingredient is needed to be a great teacher.

Passion:

Great teachers are passionate about their subject and about sharing their love for it with their students.  Great math teachers are lifelong learners of math; they enjoy learning new mathematics or new ways of looking at things they already know. They think math is awesome and want their students to learn to love and appreciate math, too.  To that end, a great teacher seeks to continually learn more about math and about how to teach it effectively.  They connect with like-minded teachers and share ideas. They work to make their classroom a place where students can engage in mathematics in creative and thought-provoking ways. They make it their goal to help every one of their students find something intriguing and enjoyable in the world of mathematics.

Great teachers are also passionate about education. They are intrigued about how students think and learn and they seek out research and use it in their classrooms. Through practice, they become expert at helping students diagnose their strengths and weaknesses and how they can become more successful learners.  They also continually seek out and try new classroom strategies that help students learn and retain what they learn.  Great teachers keep getting better at what they do.

Great teachers change their students’ perspectives. After being in a great teacher’s math class, a student might say, “Your class was the first time that I saw how creative [interesting] [fun] [applicable] math could be.” Or “I never thought that I could do math before I took your class.” Or “Thanks for taking the time to really help me understand.” Or “I really like math. What would be a career that I should look into?”  Or “I’m still not much of a math person, but I really enjoyed your class.”

My prayer is that every teacher at Covenant Christian High School seeks to be a great teacher.  We owe it first to our Lord Jesus, whose name we bear as a Christian school.  We owe it secondly to the families who pay a great deal of money for an “excellent, Christ-centered education” and who entrust their children to us with that expectation.  And, of course, we owe it to our students. (And I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I was a mediocre teacher!)

This list of qualifications is daunting. But there is hope! Being a great math teacher, like being a great math student, can be learned. It is not something we are, it is something we become, with desire, dedication, and practice. Let’s all strive to have a growth mindset about our teaching!

 

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