We have all had some great teachers. Or at least, if we have not been fortunate enough, we have heard of great teachers. Let me substitute the word ‘great’ with ‘effective’. What makes these teachers effective? Is this something that others can learn? Can other teachers who are either less or not as effective gain some of the expertise that the effective teachers seem to possess?

It might be a good idea to start with our understanding of the word, ‘effective’. I think that the simplest definition is that an effective teacher is one who inspires her students to learn. Or, even more simply, an effective teacher is one who is successful in making students learn. It is possible that there are other definitions, but for the present let me accept these two.

What are the requirements for being an effective teacher? I thought I would take up a few characteristics that I consider important. While these are by no means exhaustive, I think they are more than enough to start our quest.

Subject competence

At the school level, especially at that of the junior school, subject competence may be something that one feels is easy to attain. After all, how much does an eight or ten-year-old need to know? Cannot one just breeze through a class using one’s acquired knowledge? This assumption is very far from the truth. Admittedly, most teachers at the junior level have sufficient content knowledge. However, one needs to know the subject so well that one can see how a child understands the subject. If a child comes up with an alternative solution to a situation, the teacher should have sufficient understanding of the subject to see its validity or lack thereof. The teacher should be able to see the chain of thought that led to the student’s conclusion. The teacher should be able to give the exact amount of guidance required to enable the student to steer himself in the right direction. If the teacher’s competence is limited to offering a packaged solution, he is not doing a great service to the child. Students of the middle and high schools are more demanding. Their increased exposure to the subject and their general awareness make them demand more. They are not very easily satisfied. They may very well discover answers that the teacher himself is not aware of. The teacher should have the grace and humility to acknowledge this.

Organization of material and lesson plans

Very often, a teacher finds that some stray remark takes the class in a direction that the teacher never planned on taking. What is the teacher to do? Should she rein in the enthusiasm and persist in the direction that she wanted to take or should she give a free hand to the students and take the discussion to wherever they want to take it. A well-organized teacher will be able to come up with a third alternative; take the discussion in the direction it is going but alongside the material that she had planned for the day. This is where a teacher’s organization of material and lesson plans comes handy. If every class has been following a set plan (with many unexpected diversions) the students would be able to see the broad picture and notice the continuity. They will try and make a connection to their earlier discussions. Thus, it is very important for a teacher to have his material well organized and have a clear lesson plan. The material should not be of a single variety. Handouts, quizzes, tests, worksheets and other support material make it more interesting for a student. Further, as different students have different approaches to learning, the teacher can respond to each one by providing a variety of material.

Communication skills

The importance of communication skills can never be over-emphasized. Effective communication really means how well one can get one’s message across to the listener. If a teacher is dealing with younger children, the difficulty of getting through is even greater. A sound understanding of the subject alone will not do the job; what matters is how well the teacher is able to present it. Does the teacher’s presentation allow for different levels of understanding of the student audience? Does the teacher use various types of communication devices to get across?

Non-verbal communication, written communication, gestures and body language—all go into making the subject understandable. The teacher’s confidence level can make a big difference to the child’s understanding. Does the teacher bring in an atmosphere where learning seems fun? Or does the teacher seem pedantic? Even if the subject is perceived as a ‘dull’ one, it is up to the teacher to use all his communication skills to get across to the student. This is especially true at the school level. Too much of lecturing is one sure way of killing the interest of most students. It is important to involve them in writing, problem solving, discussions and decision making. It is not really necessary to have an excellent command of the English language (in an English medium school) or impeccable pronunciation in order to have great communication skills. While this may help to a large extent it is the teacher’s passion that really matters.

Classroom management

However small a classroom may be, its management is one of the key challenges faced by a teacher. The larger the class, the more difficult it is to manage the classroom. Classroom management does not mean the physical appearance alone. Getting the classroom to look attractive by using appropriate colours and displays certainly contributes to the atmosphere. However, the issue that I am addressing here is the fine balance that has to be struck in managing the dynamics of the classroom. Every group of students has a range of abilities. At what level does one pitch one’s lessons? At the level of students who grasp things quickly and are academically gifted or at the level of those at the other end of the spectrum? Most teachers find a via-media by telling themselves that they try and pitch the level somewhere in the middle. This is a grave mistake. What this does is lose the entire class! It is still too easy for the gifted students and still too high for the weaker students. An effective teacher is one who can address each child’s need without any generalization. Many effective teachers are able to retain the attention of the entire class by pitching the material at multiple levels, drawing examples and analogies from a variety of fields. They also have a knack of engaging every student by encouraging the student to bring out the connection she sees from her experience. Such teachers also invariably provide multi-grade tests (often taking care to prepare three or four varieties of test papers) to challenge every student in some way.

A second aspect of classroom management that we need to look at and one that most new teachers face is the potential disorderliness and noise level. The effective teacher establishes the class rules very clearly and firmly. Often, she explains the rationale behind the rules to the students; sometimes even encourages a discussion on the same and invites the student to participate in creating a sense of order. It is very important for a teacher to realize that being young as they are, students do have a tendency to seek some form of excitement and would like to take it easy if the teacher permits it. However, the same students will usually be willing to work if it is made clear, firmly, that the classroom is to be used productively. This firmness coupled with the other facets that make an effective teacher will ensure that the teacher earns the respect of the students.

Passion for teaching

There is an old saying that those who can’t, teach. This seems to indicate that those of us in the teaching profession are here solely because we couldn’t be elsewhere. In the case of an effective teacher this is far from the truth. An effective teacher has to be passionate about teaching, about being with young and agile minds—curious minds that are often like sponges that absorb and demand more. The teacher’s passion for the subject or the students or both has to come through clearly. The teacher is the motivator in the learning process and where the students are already motivated, he is the facilitator. Effective teachers avoid falling into the trap of basing their responses on the response of the students. They are able to maintain their passion even if they seem to be up against a blank wall. They are confident that their passion will eventually kindle the enthusiasm of the students and it will soon turn into a raging fire of curiosity. It is easy to teach a class of enthusiastic and motivated students. It is very difficult to teach a class of uninterested students who are not academically inclined. The real challenge for an effective teacher is the third case; bright students who are not interested in school work. An effective teacher does not care about the composition of the class. He rises to the challenge each time and is able to kindle interest in his students and raise their levels close to their highest potential.

Empathy, patience and being impartial

The ‘human’ side of the teacher is dominant in the last four characteristics of an effective teacher. Slow learners, the gifted, and not so gifted students all need to be dealt with empathy and patience. Sometimes it becomes very difficult to manage a class that is being slowed down by one or more students or distracted by some who have moved quickly. The effective teacher needs to understand (and it is not an easy task at all) the minds of every one of his students. Nearly everyone has come across teachers who seem to favour some of the students. The usual characteristics that make one a teacher’s pet are academic excellence, behavioral excellence, being good looking and being associated with power or money. The other students in the class can see through this very easily while the teacher may be genuinely ignorant of his favoritism. The effective teacher never favours one over the other. She deals with each student as an individual who is nevertheless subject to common rules. She genuinely treats every one as an equal. In fact, every student in the class is the teacher’s favourite. Every student is made to feel that the teacher is approachable at any time and that the student will receive the same attention as anybody else in the class.

Being non-judgemental

We as human beings are very judgemental. We are constantly judging others and comparing and contrasting and checking out actions and words against what we know of human behaviour. We find it very difficult to be non-judgemental. Most effective people have the ability to look at events and not at personalities. They avoid judging a person and focus entirely on the action. Students are mortally scared of being judged. Their whole academic life seems to be aimed at pleasing someone or the other. They are constantly looking for the approval of their parents, their teachers and, very often, their peers. It comes as a fresh surprise to them when the teacher does not judge them. The effective teacher believes that her role is only to enthuse the student to learn, to be curious and to try his best. The effective teacher understands very clearly that a student who seems to have difficulties at school at the present time need not have them in future. Thus, an effective teacher does not judge the student but responds to his present performance. She knows that all students do not learn at the same pace or in the same way and hence does not consider a student’s inability to learn something now as an indication of failure.

Being accountable

I would like to end this article on effective teachers by looking at the important factor of accountability. While every profession demands accountability, I believe that from some kinds of professions like the medical, law enforcement and teaching we need to demand an even higher level of accountability. An effective teacher needs to take responsibility for the learning process. He has to be there for the student whenever possible. The effective teacher puts the student’s interest above his own. Sometimes a teacher gets bored teaching the same subject and although she is very good at it, she wants to develop her other interests and wants to try something else. It is certainly fair for teachers to develop themselves but not at the expense of the students. If an effective teacher has a skill that will benefit the students, she does not hesitate to share this with them. Like doctors and judges and statesmen, teachers too need to place the interests of their students above their own. An effective teacher is one who makes the interests of his students his personal interest.