What Do Inspirational Teachers Look Like?

I was digging through my feed reader today when I stumbled on a Patrick Higgins post that I’m glad I didn’t miss.  Patrick was working to define the characteristics of inspirational teachers.

Here’s his list—drawn from an image at Ben Wilkoff’s Academy of Discovery wiki:

  • Provocative: the first on the list, and for good reason. What is someone in education if not provocative. By nature, information is meant to incite in us something that lay dormant or underutilized. Giving our students access to such provocation is an act that we need to do often.
  • Risk-Takers: We teach our students to take compositional risks, to make cognitive leaps, and to attempt to connect several disparate ideas into one usable and coherent whole. Why should we as teachers not be doing the same? By nature, our approach should be daring, and variable based on “teachable moments.”
  • Balance-Freedom-Guidance: I like the inclusion of these words, and of “nurturing,” because if nothing else, our students need to feel valuable and safe before they can take the risks that they need to. These words, these actions are what makes it easier for learners to reach from the solid ground of what they know towards that which is shaky, unknown, yet incredibly valuable.
  • Humble: When I work with teachers who are trying to shift away from being the sole arbiters of information in the classroom, I always stress humility over the stress of trying to know everything. Being grounded, centered and comfortable with the idea that you do not have all the answers, and that these students can help you continue to learn, makes it all beautiful, doesn’t it?
  • Want to be like them: Perhaps the highest compliment anyone in education can receive. With the omnipresent stream of role models of ill-repute, being someone that learners want to be “when they grow up” is no small feat. I remember the moments that some of my past teachers did something amazing, showed us a door that we didn’t know existed, and then thinking back to it years later as I was doing the same thing to a group of students. It is high praise indeed.

I found myself nodding in agreement as I read through Pat’s list.  All are characteristics of teachers that inspired me during the course of my education.

What about you?

If you had to rank these in importance from most important to least important, what would your list look like?  Which of these traits is most important for a teacher to possess?  Would you add anything to the list?  Is it possible to improve in these categories, or are they static and unchanging parts of our personalities?

Another question that rolls through my mind is are these traits even possible in an NCLB driven accountability culture? Has standardized testing–and the pressures that it carries with it—changed the very nature of teachers?

I only ask because I know I’m different now than I was 10 years ago—and I’m not sure all the differences are admirable!

Looking forward to your replies…

4 thoughts on “What Do Inspirational Teachers Look Like?

  1. J.M. Holland

    I think one of the characteristics I have really found important is passion. My former principal had a righteous fury that our high needs students were not being successful. She demanded the best from her staff and the students. Without that passion and the high expectations associated with that passion, we would still be failing students.

  2. Bob Heiny

    I, too, hold similar thoughts, but find mixed results to the following Q: How do you see these ideas translating into student learning rates, the teacher’s central duty?

  3. Patrick

    Nate,
    I agree wholeheartedly. One thing I have found since becoming an administrator is that listening is paramount to building relationships with both teachers and students. Being able to empathize with a teacher’s needs has enabled them to trust my decisions. They may not always like them, but they trust I have their best interests in mind.

  4. Nate Barton

    I would like to add one characteristic to the list.
    Listener: I feel like the best teachers are the ones who are able to listen to their students. Listening promotes empathy, and true empathy opens the doors for respect. If you have your students respect, they will move mountains for you.

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