Five Core Behaviors of Successful Teachers

It would be foolish to think there’s only one model of a successful teacher. Far too many of our discussions of schools and teaching tries to hammer a variety of different personality types and ability levels into a single shape of classroom behavior.

We need to focus on the many qualities successful teachers share rather than how we can make them all alike. It’s important that children entering a world full of diverse people and personalities get exposed to a broad spectrum of teaching methods.

The best teachers put children first, know their subject matter, work well with colleagues and become part of the life of their school.From my experience, the best teachers:

Put the children first

Without fail, the most successful teachers begin and end their day thinking of how to improve their students’ academic experience. New content to share and better ways to teach it are a constant presence in their mind, and they adjust their practice as they have to.

They also recognize that a student is a growing person who needs support and encouragement. Child-centered behavior can take many forms — from the kind and continually nurturing teacher to the gruff, “don’t smile until Christmas” teacher — but regardless of the outside appearance, the best teachers always consider their work in the context of what’s right for the kids.

Thoroughly understand their content

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but the most successful teachers know their content well. And by that, I don’t mean that they just know the curriculum document that drives their class, but that they have a true and deep understanding of their classroom subject area.

For a history teacher, this might not only be the facts of an event, but the ability to speak with authority on the happenings that preceded a major historical moment. An English teacher can access, with ease, a deep base of authors and books that relate to a current reading. Not only does this type of recall help during instruction, but it sends a strong message to the student that the content is important to the teacher. That, in turn, increases student interest.

Stay open to growth

I spend a lot of time observing and conferencing with teachers, and it never fails to impress me when a dedicated veteran teacher shares their frustrations about areas where they really want to be better at their jobs. This openness to continual improvement is a constant thread in the experience of successful teachers, who never stop thinking that personal improvement will enhance the experience of their students. By placing the needs of students first and being willing to modify their practice to make it happen, teachers realize they are doing right by children.

Help out their colleagues

Schools are social institutions where relationships between teachers drive the success of the entire enterprise. The best teachers know they need the support of colleagues, and that they need to respond in kind.

This support can be through formal mentoring and meetings. Having a person to turn to, who isn’t an administrator, is especially important for newer teachers. Being an informal source of support, whether it’s over a cup of coffee in the morning before school starts or in the hallways between classes, is part of the regular practice of successful teachers. Giving colleagues the support they need helps them grow from the experience.

Play a role in the life of the school

A school is not just a collection of classrooms where teachers work independent of each other. Instead, it’s a place where culture dominates all parts of the student experience. That’s why most successful teachers embrace responsibilities outside of their classroom instruction.

This may include running an assembly, advising a club advisor or coaching a sports team. Whatever the activity, successful teachers realize they’re part of the whole institution — not just the little piece of it in their classroom.

Schools need teachers who know the content well, always start with the children in mind, are there for each other and play a role in the entire life of the school. These traits are not specific to any age group, socioeconomic level or a subject matter. They can be found in anyone, anywhere as long as they embrace what successful teachers do every day.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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