Born or Made: What Makes a Great Teacher?

By School of Education Professional Development School Faculty Stacy Williams, James Wolgamott, Deborah Anthony, Kathleen Nawrocki, and Allan Olchowski, Ph.D., and Joshua Smith, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education  |  Illustration by Malia Leary

We’ve all heard it said, “great teachers are born, not made.” The statement insinuates that young people always knew they would become teachers, inherently love children, and are lifelong learners.

As former teachers and current teacher educators, we know there is much more to great teaching than destiny.

It is true that many people enter the profession of teaching with a passion for children and learning. Some arrive committed to providing quality education to all, regardless of race, ability, or socio-economic status. Others intuitively uncover strengths and nurture what students bring to the classroom. Still others possess a calm, deliberate, and patient approach, even under the most challenging circumstances.

However, to find individuals with all of these dispositions and attributes is rare. Even if an individual possesses all of these attributes, it is not nearly enough. Great teachers must strive to improve their dispositions and also be able to digest research on effective practice, interpret learning theory, and advocate for their students and families.

Preparation of a Great Teacher

Learning how to teach effectively, to say nothing of being great, requires a massive commitment of time and energy. In addition to obtaining a well-rounded background in several disciplinary areas, becoming a great teacher requires foundational coursework in educational theories and evidence-based practice.

At first, all students struggle with challenge to connect theory and practice. We train them to resist the temptation to rely on their experience as a student or a gut reaction to solve a problem.

Course assignments require students to consistently and critically consider what it means to become a reflective teacher. They provide candid and constructive feedback to peers and are encouraged to be open to feedback themselves. They learn how to write plans, implement, and revise lesson plans multiple times based on guidance from others.

Additionally, the teacher candidates become well-versed in a variety of cutting-edge, pedagogical practices and authentic assessment practices. They learn to review data from multiple assessments, modify practice, and offer individualized support to students who are struggling, as well as to those who excel.

This attention to differentiated instruction is a challenge for new and veteran teachers alike. However, great teachers hold high expectations for all students and consistently think of ways to make learning accessible to all.

Learning through Consistent Field Experience

As undergraduates, elementary education teacher candidates at Loyola participate actively in field experiences in local schools every semester. Secondary education minors and Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) students participate in two field experiences before their internships. These schools are our partners in teacher preparation.

Each semester education students return to campus well before their peers in other majors to begin internships when local school system teachers return to work. In addition to working with Loyola Professional Development Schools (PDS) faculty members who possess extensive experience as teachers and school leaders, students are paired with carefully selected, highly qualified teachers who support them throughout the year.

Our PDS faculty work closely with 15-18 students and their mentors at three school sites. The faculty spend at least one full day at each school supporting teacher candidates, offering advice to mentor teachers, and serve on the school-wide planning teams and committees. During the first semester of internship, students spend one day every week in that same classroom getting to know their students, observing their mentor teachers, and reflecting on what is working and what could be done differently.

Throughout this experience, the teacher candidates have opportunities to teach lessons, receive feedback, and reflect on practices. The second semester of internship is a full-time teaching program, following the school system schedule. The student moves toward independent teaching as the mentor teacher observes and assists.

This gradual release process is intentional and provides a sense of confidence and an appreciation for difficulties associated with the day-to-day work of a teacher.

Great Teaching Is More Than Classroom Management

Many people equate a quiet, orderly classroom with learning. While this can be true at times, chatter emanating from small-group discussion and even a bit of laughter is likely an indicator that students are learning. Great teachers create a learning community where children feel safe and see clear ways to be successful every day.

Creating a positive learning environment—often coined classroom management—is consistently cited as a challenge area for new teachers. Principals often ask faculty in Schools of Education to spend more time with our candidates in this area. Constructing a dynamic and balanced classroom requires applying theories on child and adolescent development, being open to learning from role models who value the learning community approach, and a willingness to try new approaches.

Great teachers master the content and carefully construct engaging activities that attend to multiple learning strategies. They adjust plans as needed and make seamless transitions among different components of the lesson. They are meticulously prepared and organized, but make it appear to their students that the lesson flows naturally as if they just thought of a cool idea or way to learn a complex concept.

Great teachers do not merely provide students with information and they do not exist simply to raise the test scores of their students. Rather, great teachers focus their energy on designing lessons that engage students and help them to acquire intellectual habits of mind. They ensure that students truly understand and connect what they are learning to their daily lives and the lives of their friends and families.

Great teachers are champions for democracy. They provide students with choices of what they learn and how they demonstrate mastery of content and expectations. They assess understanding, collect data, and use those data to design future lessons.

Great Teachers View Diversity as an Asset

The economic challenges confronting students and families in urban and rural schools are real and pervasive. Great teachers make a serious commitment to care about all of their students and to believe that a good education makes a difference in children’s lives. They communicate with families in respectful and positive ways.

Great teachers value diversity as an enhancement to the learning environment and do not view it as challenge or a problem to be solved. They are advocates for children and families and actively seek collaboration with other teachers and school administration.

All teachers are expected to implement the latest curricular standards and meet the ever-changing mandates from local, state, and federal interests. However, great teachers question the integrity of the proposed changes and critically examine potentially negative impacts on students, especially students who are marginalized by inequities in the system.

Great teachers are rightfully accountable for their students, but they question the reliability, utility, and privileging of standardized test scores as the most effective or sole measure of student learning or teacher effectiveness.

What Makes Loyola University Maryland Different?

Unlike most teacher preparation programs, the PDS faculty in Loyola’s School of Education are full-time, clinical faculty members who spend countless hours supporting teacher candidates in our partner schools. Additionally, we provide a solid background in educational theory, research on innovative practice, and hold up Jesuit ideals of social justice, service, and, most importantly, cura personalis—care for the whole person.

Our conceptual framework insists on competence, conscience, and compassion. Our teacher candidates are encouraged to build on learners’ strengths instead of looking for deficiencies. We firmly believe that our framework is foundation for greatness.

How do we define greatness?

Great teachers are lifelong learners who start their careers by making a difference in classrooms.

Great teachers increase their spheres of influence to schools, school systems, and communities.

Great teachers take advantage of professional development and make time to grow and develop.

Great teachers change lives and create a better future.

There are countless good teachers who want to be great. Here at Loyola we are proud that our students strive to become great and are always striving to become even greater. After all, greatness is not just born, but made—through determination, commitment, and a hunger both to succeed and also serve.

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