The traits of super teachers

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is no such thing as a super teacher. But if one did exist, what abilities would they exhibit? John Dabell looks at some of the traits of great teachers and urges all teachers to reject imposter syndrome and recognise their many talents...

Teaching is technically, physically and mentally demanding. Although all the complex component skills can be studied, isolated, practised, and ultimately improved upon, the real teaching bit is hard to get right because our personalities get in the way.

Don’t you just hate “those” teachers. You know the ones I mean. Seemingly genetically blessed, they have that knack for teaching and make it look all so easy. Is there a special factory making these limited editions? They have the knack whereas most of us are just knackered and regularly burst into tears at the weekend.

Teachers with a flair for the job can make us feel inadequate because they seem to be fitted with pedagogical “super powers” and can turn their hands and minds to anything, whatever the classroom weather.

Their job is their passion and their passion is their craft. These are the natural and sometimes charismatic souls that know their subjects inside out, have a gift for rapport and a talent for supporting and nurturing. They choreograph their classrooms, get the best out of everyone and manage to combine passion and energy with being low-key, laid-back and happy. They have presence. Nothing seems to faze them either – they are in control. They think rapidly and accurately, they have expert mental models, they spot patterns and they can deal with someone “kicking-off”.

Teachers with a knack are full of empathy and can skilfully communicate with pupils in a consistent manner. They are “there” for everyone and make individual pupils feel important, respected and valued. These master teachers truly touch and change lives. It is little surprise to learn that they are widely respected.

Teachers with the knack are positive people who are self-motivated and energised. This doesn’t mean they are immune from the trials and tribulations of teaching. They still get bad days at the office and they still get sick.

But these are teachers that aren’t serial moaners and they don’t get sucked into toxicity. They are keenly attuned to the interpersonal aspects of a work situation, they keep their counsel and refuse to enter into a culture of doom.

They refuse to be part of any balkanisation because they are “people” people and respect colleagues despite differences. They aren’t “people-pleasers” either but untethered from the opinions of others because they have a mind of their own and don’t live for others’ validation. They accept their weaknesses and don’t come down hard on themselves.

Excellent teachers have positive mindsets and let positive thinking go viral. They demonstrate courage in challenging situations with a “never give up” attitude and commit to problem-solving and getting things done. They don’t get angry when milk is spilled. They ooze credibility and expertise and infuse children with confidence and enthusiasm. These are teachers able to empower others by their presence.

Let’s consider some of the basic traits of a super teacher:

  • Organised and are always thinking ahead.
  • Prioritisers and do the important stuff first.
  • Accountable and take ownership of mistakes and short-comings.
  • Explainers and can clearly articulate their thoughts, ideas and explanations.
  • Patient and understand that learning is full of mistakes and something can’t be rushed or happen by “magic”.
  • Optimistic and believes that all students can learn and get better.
  • A listener and really tuned into what people are saying.
  • Creative and is able to produce memorable and exciting learning moments.
  • Versatile, flexible and always editing their feelings and responses.
  • Assertive and say “no” if they have to, not least in order to protect their wellbeing.
  • Networkers who surround themselves with successful people and role models.
  • Self-monitors who invest heavily in their own personal and professional development.
  • Risk-takers who spearhead new ways of working and battle classroom complacency
  • Believers who nurture themselves by being confident practitioners.

Does this person actually exist? The sociology and psychology of the super teacher is hard to pin down, but rest assured – no-one is a natural born teacher.

But look in the mirror and you will see that we all have the potential to be super teachers by super-sizing what we do.

For some, being a great teacher seems natural, but it is often the result of many years doing the job and making many hundreds of mistakes along the way. Although a flair for teaching can be seen in any teacher, regardless of experience and age, the knack of teaching comes with practice. Teachers with a knack might look like they have exceptional ability, but are they just good teachers who are relaxed in their own teaching skins?

I think it boils down to confidence. Every teacher has talent but they don’t always bring it out because they are cursed by self-doubts and insecurities as to whether they can do the job. It seems incongruous that teachers lack confidence given that we stand in front of a class full of learners everyday, but confidence is never a constant. Yes it can grow but it can also diminish, drain away rapidly and be extremely hard to replace. Feeling at ease and being confident in ourselves as competent teachers enable all the above qualities to come out of their hiding places, grow and blossom.

Everyone can develop a knack for teaching by believing in themselves more and discarding their impostor syndrome. Feeling under-confident and operating in a state of permanent, low-level paranoia, doesn’t allow you to super-size yourself and so the very things that can give you the “knack” remain locked away.

Many teachers will say that they aren’t good enough and live in constant fear of being “exposed as a fraud”. Yet, they are good enough and more than competent. The problem is that one bad lesson can eat away at your personal identity and a crisis of confidence can soon set in, especially for young teachers. We must fight against this. We must fight against imposter syndrome.

The ugly part of impostor syndrome is that even good lessons can make teachers feel this way too. They can talk themselves into seeing a successful lesson as a fluke or an isolated incident.
Impostor syndrome is characterised by feelings of anxiety and so we doubt ourselves and believe our success is down to luck and that one day our lack of ability is going to be exposed for the whole world to see.
Not feeling comfortable in one’s own teaching skin means not accepting your qualities and seeing your strengths as weaknesses. Overcoming the impostor syndrome is crucial for our flair to unleash itself.
Of course, that’s easy to say when you get those gut-wrenching sensations or butterflies-in-your-stomach feelings when being observed.

However, wanting to get things right leads to obsessing, overworking and a complete lack of balance and it is these behaviours that deplete our self-confidence. If only we could accept our humanity as teachers (and of course school leaders and line managers must also accept this humanity).

Teaching places enormous cognitive demands on us but it is amazing how a little bit of confidence can go a long way and can help us to start to open up our talents. Teachers with the knack for teaching have gained mastery of their feelings and nurtured their courage and confidence. As they become more confident, they abandon worry and hesitation, and minimise the fear.

To get the knack, teachers should focus on how they can change their self-perception and start teaching with self-confidence. This comes down to self-worth and feeling that you are truly of value. Schools, school leaders – and of course teachers – must remember this and must do all that they can to nurture this confidence in the classroom.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2gBiaXv


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