Helping teachers talk about what it means to be a ‘good’ teacher

A research chat with PhD graduate Kimberley Grant

Tell us about your research project.

My study focuses on the question of what it means to be a ‘good teacher’ from a teacher’s point of view. While there is an abundance of research on the issue of teacher effectiveness and many recommendations for teacher self-assessment, most of this research comes from the perspective of administrators and researchers. I wanted to include teachers’ voices in these conversations.

I was a high school teacher in western Canada for 15 years before I started graduate school.  Working in schools, you learn to avoid even commenting on another teacher’s work. Thus, when I was no longer a practicing teacher, I was surprised that the parents of my children’s classmates regularly discussed their opinions of who is and what it means to be a good teacher. What was not surprising was the wide range of opinions on these issues.

I realized that it was a question I had never been directly asked during my classroom career: “what does it mean to be a good teacher?” And behind that question is an even more daunting one: “am I a good teacher?” I began to wonder how other teachers answer these questions.

My participants were six practicing teachers from the Calgary area.  I met with each of them for a one-on-one interview, and then four of the participants were able to meet with me for a group conversation.  For the initial interviews, participants were asked to bring an artifact of something that represents what it means to be a good teacher.

These artifacts—ranging from a jar of water to thank you notes from students to an image of Rodin’s The Thinker—served as starting points for our conversations.

What did you discover?

All of the participants were deeply reluctant to describe themselves as ‘good teachers.’  Even those with many years of experience, and who had received numerous accolades for their work, were uncomfortable with the word ‘good’ because it seemed to convey a sense of completion or of having arrived – and all of the participants described wanting to be teachers who would continue to grow and learn throughout their careers. ‘Good’ was not the right word, but there were no other words that seemed to fit either.

The teachers spoke of having a feeling or a sense that they were doing well by their students, but they acknowledged that this feeling would rarely be put into words. However, the participants were all able to share stories about times when they considered themselves to be good teachers. These stories aligned strongly with Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow, which may provide language and descriptions that are useful.

The participants considered themselves to be good teachers when both they and their students were deeply absorbed in learning that was intrinsically enjoyable. This was also true when they recognized a growing ability to anticipate challenges and respond with increasing sensitivity and skill to a wide range of student learning situations.

What does this mean for teachers?

We need clarification whenever we use the phrase ‘good teacher’ – not to develop a universally accepted definition, but in order to better understand the range of perspectives at play and to develop language to express these ideas. We may both agree that we want our students to have good teachers, but we may not have the same understanding of what that means.

Finding ways to talk about these ideas and experiences has implications for teacher assessment, self-assessment, and professional development. A teacher’s work is complex, and there is a need to support teachers in articulating their vision of what it means to be a ‘good’ teacher.