Not everyone is an educator, but everyone is a teacher.
What makes a great teacher?
Fill in the blank. Great teachers __________________________? Think about it for a moment.
I’m sure some of you might have said planning… planning is important, but it doesn’t make you a great teacher. Here is what I think makes a great teacher.
1. Celebrate Mistakes
We call these “teachable moments.” Usually, a teachable moment is not planned, but you can plan them and they are just as powerful. I had a co-teacher when teaching kindergarten. We decided to do a lesson outside about butterflies. I planned the story I would read to the students. The students were all seated nicely and 100% engaged in listening to my amazing butterfly story. I even had a butterfly ring on to act out the parts of the story.
All of the sudden, a real butterfly appeared about 20 feet away from where we were reading. My co-worker, Nancy yelled, “LOOK, a real butterfly!” Well, you can imagine what happened next. The kids all fluttered to the real butterfly while I was left holding my book wondering how Nancy could have just ruined my lesson. Nancy told the students all about the butterfly parts, life span, and coloring. Finally, I got them to come back and let me finish my ruined story. (Well, at least that’s how I felt.)
The truth is Nancy taking time to make that unexpected butterfly part of our lesson left a lasting impression on that class. The students talked about that moment all year! They didn’t remember my perfectly planned book or butterfly ring. Students experienced an exciting moment together while learning. That excitement builds bonds and locks in knowledge. Nancy not only taught the students about butterflies, but she taught me the value of teachable moments. Being upset about an interruption during lessons was now a thing in the past.
Even if I forgot the attendance, I would make that mistake a teachable moment about how I could remember tomorrow with a sticky note. Eventually, it was a student’s job to remind me. They were called the Absent Keeper. The Absent Keeper reminded me to take attendance and wrote a short note to the missing students about how much we missed them at school.
That lesson lead me to discover how to create teachable moments that look like accidents, but were really planned in order to create that same excitement with other lessons. I would invite guest speakers and say, “Look who I ran into outside…” Guessing Grab Bags were used for students to explore. Some of these bags moved, made noises, or smelled to peak student’s interest.
2. Find Commonalities
Find moments that all students can relate to with each other. Every child is scared on the first day of school or has a fear of public speaking. Discuss them as a class and provide them with opportunities to work together as a class to overcome the fear.
This also allows you to appreciate the differences in each other. Finding commonalities between students is a great way to show how we are similar to others who we might think are different due to looks, culture, or language. Provide experiences to learn about others who are different, but lead them to see how we are all human.
3. Memorable Moment Keepsakes
Capture memorable moments and activate that moment in future lessons to make connections. It creates a bond with your students. For example, one time the first week of school, we made GAK. If you are not familiar, it’s a rubbery substance made when you mix liquids together. Students add glitter or food coloring to the mixture and love to play with the slimy substance if it’s done correctly.
During the first week of school early in my career, I decided to do a GAK science lesson about 40 minutes before the day was over. At the time this seemed great because I knew the students would be excited and go home to tell parents all about their fun science lesson.
It did NOT go as planned. The mixture wasn’t correct and students ended up with a sticky blue mess that stained their new clothes and half the class had it stuck in their hair when they left school. Parents were not happy. Students were not happy. I sat in a dark room and cried about my failed lesson while typing an apology letter to families.
The lesson failed. I took pictures during the lesson. That lesson was used to activate prior knowledge in all our future science experiments. The best part was I wasn’t activating the prior knowledge. The students would refer to the mess and remind each other to make sure we followed the instructions so we wouldn’t have “another crazy science day like when GAK was on the attack.” 🙂
I made photo albums for every class I ever taught as a keepsake. Some of my students who are out of college now shared their photo albums with me and they LOVED seeing the failed GAK experiment even though they are adults now. Memories matter!
Other memorable moments can include theme days, escape rooms, lessons with movement, secret handshakes, holiday celebrations, clever farewells, and field trips! Students respond to lessons from your excitement. You have the power to empower them with the tools and the emotion behind the tools that make the connection last a long time.
Great teachers relay feedback quickly. Whether it’s verbal, a sticker on a paper, a stamp, or a note home, your feedback sticks with them. There was a boy in my kindergarten class who hated writing. He did a great job writing one day, so I held his paper up to the class and made a big deal about the neatness of his handwriting. I never thought much about it after that day, but he did. Years later he told me that moment was the moment he knew he wanted to write more. He went from being intimidated by writing to wanting to grow because of that one moment.
It matters for you to let students know how you feel. If you don’t like student behavior or work, it’s important for you to verbalize it. Do it in a way that inspires them to improve. Quietly pull a student aside when it’s low-quality work and say something like, “Jimmy, I’ve seen your work in the past and I was so impressed that I sent a note home to your parents. I would love to do that again, but this paper only has one sentence. The lesson asked for a paragraph. Do you think you can do better?” Doing this quietly allows the student to self-reflect without the worry of embarrassment from peers.
These situations empower students to change, builds lasting bonds with classmates, and inspire them to improve.
5. Self Reflections
Evaluate your lessons regularly. Reflect on what went right, wrong, and how to improve the quality of your teaching. I do this out loud for students to hear, so they know I make mistakes and turn them into memorable moments. For example, the GAK attack only happened one time. I reflected, made changes to the lesson for the next science experiment, and used it as a teachable moment.
People forget lectures and lessons, but not feelings. You have the power as a teacher to change how people feel and grow. Create an unforgettable positive feeling to make an impact in their future.
Read about why Escape Rooms Are Great for Elementary HERE