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The 5 most important qualities of a good teacher

Being a great teacher boils down to 5 non-negotiable qualities. From my experience teaching and watching other teachers, I present them to you here.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Over the years, I’ve taught in many environments and through different mediums.

I’ve taught:

  • Online and offline
  • In private and in public forum
  • Through writing and speaking
  • 1-on-1 and in group

Currnetly, my primary teaching platform is this blog. I share life lessons that I picked up from growing up poor, boxing professionally, playing chess, and getting a Physics degree.

But for three years, I also tutored high school students in various levels of math and science. Not only did my students improve their grades, but they also began to understand how to learn and the art of learning.

My basic philosophy of teaching is this:

To take what I’ve learned the hard way, and break it down so that you can learn it the easy way.

And those three years of tutoring proved this to be an effective teaching philosophy.

What made me a good teacher?

You see, in high school, I barely passed any of my math classes. I decided early on that math was something I’d never get. But then, despite this attitude, I went back to school as an adult to earn a bachelor’s degree in Physics with a minor in Mathematics.

So how did a failing math student eventually earn a degree in Physics, a subject that requires so much math that you automatically get a mathematics minor with the major?

I did it by working hard, taking things slowly, and *believing* that I was capable of learning anything. This was not a belief I had in high school, but it’s one that, when I started tutoring, I tried to help students develop.

I once told a kid I was helping get ready for the Calculus AP exam that I was an excellent role model because I failed Calculus three times before I really understood it, so I knew all of the mistakes that she was going to make. I think the best teachers were once struggling students themselves and that’s how they’re able to help other struggling students.

My students were all over the spectrum in terms of subject matter knowledge.

One day I would tutor a girl who was failing a physics class she wasn’t supposed to be in, and the next day I’d sit down with a guy who needed help acing AP calculus. Working with students of different ability levels, knowledge, confidence, and motivation showed me how to become a more effective teacher.

This post was actually motivated by a note a student gave me during our last session together. I had asked her to list the things that I did that she thought were helpful (feedback is really important if you want to improve). I’ll go further in depth on key points she listed, as well as add things she didn’t cover that I believe contributed to her growth.

So, without further ado, here are the four qualities of a good teacher:

1) Great teachers make themselves irrelevant

When have you truly succeeded as a teacher?

When you’re no longer necessary.

This is an important mindset to have: Your job is to ensure that your student is equipped with both the knowledge and the skills necessary to succeed without your help. When you view your role as an educator this way, it changes your approach to teaching and highlights the important role you play in the student’s learning

Instead of helping them quickly overcome some immediate problem and pass an assessment, you become more concerned with their long-term development. Your goal changes from “helping them solve problems” to “shaping them into effective problem solvers”.

The saying goes: If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.

Don’t give them fish. Don’t even “just” teach them how to fish. Instead, make sure they understand how to gather food anywhere, regardless of the terrain

How does a teacher turn a student into a problem solver?

Regardless of their learning style, I taught all of my students the 3-step problem-solving method. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times this helped me figure what I’m doing on tests and various homework assignments when I was a student.

The 3-step problem-solving methodis a slightly more simplified version of the scientific method:

  1. Figure out what you need to know
  2. Think about all the things you know related to what you need to know
  3. Find a relationship between the two.

This simple method for solving academic problems is how you solve every mathematical/scientific problem, regardless of its type or complexity. It’s also how you solve problems in life as well.

The only reason any problem does not yield to this method is misidentification of the problem, inaccuracy, or incomplete information.

I shared this concept with the students so that they could solve difficult problems, many of which they would only encounter on a test, and nowhere else before.

In this age of prepackaged online curricula and Google, students can look up the answer to almost anything. Problem-solving ability is fading at an alarming rate. Most people now—student or otherwise—just look things up.

That may be a viable strategy if your plan is to be in service (mentally, economically, or otherwise) to someone else, but those who wish to truly have an impact on the world will need to be able to critically solve problems.

As a teacher, you can’t prepare your students for every problem they’ll face, but you can make sure that they have the ability to think properly in order to work through unfamiliar situations.

This requires helping the student understand the essence of a problem rather than memorize a few canned approaches.

2) Good teachers push students beyond memorization

Here’s how my student put it:

“You make sure I actually know what I’m talking about and have me come up with my own definitions of things if they sound too ‘textbooky’.”

I feel better when my students can talk about smart things in a stupid way.

Or less colloquially, I feel better when my students can discuss higher-order concepts using layman’s terms. I truly believe in the Albert Einstein quote, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it.”

My undergraduate degree is in Physics—arguably the most complicated topic there is—and I’ve yet to encounter an idea that could not be explained (to a relatively high level of precision) so simply that a layman could understand it.

I made it through my studies by making sure that I understood every concept. I knew that I had reached that point when I could draw analogies and make connections that even some of my professors had not pointed out. This is the same standard that I held my tutoring students to.

The first step that you take before moving through the problem is ensuring that the student is able to explain the problem and what is being asked of them. Then, you discuss any equations or formulas that might be useful in solving this particular problem.

My optics professor, Theodore Corcovilos, once told the class, “Never use an equation if you don’t know how to derive it.” I remember thinking at the time that this was an insane standard. However, he didn’t mean for us to create each equation we use from scratch. It wasn’t until I started tutoring that I understood what he really meant.

He meant for us to fully understand any equation we use rather than just memorize it. This way we’d know exactly when—or when not to—use it.

You see, what my optics professor understood is that memorization creates the illusion of mastery. This is an illusion that only reality can shatter and problem-solving skills can rebuild.

The same idea applies to the teaching of non-academic subjects.

I recently taught a friend how to drive, and I realized that there was no set formula for parallel parking. I tried to give her one, but the parking situations were too variable. The curb would be at different heights, the parking space at different lengths, and we’d sometimes even have to park on the left side of the road.

There are a lot of shitty drivers on the road who basically memorized the way to pass the driver’s exam and can’t drive. I wanted her to know how to drive and be able to adjust to everything—not just get a license. I was, in the purest sense of the word, trying to make myself irrelevant.

As a teacher, you have to make sure that your student’s understanding of an idea is so thorough that they can solve most problems that arise, even if—and in many times, especially—they’ve never faced them before.

Learn the method I used to earn a physics degree, learn Spanish, and win a national boxing title

  • I was a terrible math student in high school who wrote off mathematics. I eventually overcame my difficulties and went on to earn a B.A. Physics with a minor in math
  • I pieced together the best works on the internet to teach myself Spanish as an adult
  • *I didn’t start boxing until the very old age of 22, yet I went on to win a national championship, get a high-paying amateur sponsorship, and get signed by Roc Nation Sports as a profession.

I’ve used this method to progress in mentally and physically demanding domains.

While the specifics may differ, I believe that the general methods for learning are the same in all domains.

This free e-book breaks down the most important techniques I’ve used for learning.

Get the free book now

3) Good teachers let their students learn from their own mistakes 

Here’s what my tutoring student said:

“You never treated me like I was stupid, even if I asked stupid questions. And if I told you that I had a stupid question, you always told me that it probably wasn’t stupid.”

Few things are worse than a teacher who makes a student feel like their question is “stupid”. If a student has a question, it’s for one of two reasons: intellectual curiosity on their part, or poor explanation on the teacher’s part. The former should be fostered and the latter should be fixed.

The learning environment you create as a teacher is just as important as your mastery of the subject. Above all, students should feel comfortable making mistakes and asking for clarity.

Many students don’t make progress in a subject because they miss a vital concept they feel should be easily understood. Instead of asking for clarity, the student worries about looking stupid. As a result, they remain much closer to that state than they would have had they only reached out.

The purpose of learning is to eradicate ignorance. The problem is that ignorance is mocked. Ironically, this makes the student apprehensive to admit ignorance about something, increasing the likelihood that they remain that way.

The best way a teacher can improve their student’s results is to let them fail. In academic settings, this is difficult because grades function more like a criminal record than a feedback mechanism. Kids really believe that getting a C in the 9th grade screws them for life.

I’ve always enjoyed letting my students make mistakes. Even if we’re operating within a time constraint (only an hour for a tutoring session), I feel time used allowing the student to make mistakes is time well spent.

The best way to improve outcomes is by improving the processes that lead to those outcomes. It’s only by observing the errors in their thinking that you’re able to correct them.

It’s easy to correct someone when they’re wrong. A mediocre teacher only stops there. The real challenge is correcting the thinking that leads to incorrect conclusions, and to do so without judgment. This is what better teachers attempt to accomplish.

4) Good teachers challenge their students

In her words:

“Asking me the exact same questions that I ask you. Yes, this can be really annoying sometimes, but it does actually help. Especially because you almost never just straight up give me the answer; just hints. Having to pull the answer to my own question from prior knowledge and stuff in the problem I’m trying to solve helps *actually* learn.”

Fundamentally, teaching is just guiding a person on their own journey of self-development and learning.

Teachers aren’t the ones putting the knowledge or skills into the learner’s mind. The learner does this through their own efforts. Teacher’s merely illuminate the most efficient pathway to acquisition.

If you doubt this, think back to the last time you learned a skill you did not want to learn. I’ll wait. You can make people remember something if it’s shocking or novel enough, but you can’t make people acquire skills they don’t want to acquire.

Unfortunately, there are two common but erroneous ideas that make people give up learning something new:

  1. How fast you learn something is predictive of your potential ability
  2. If something doesn’t come easy, you’ll never be any good at it.

These incorrect perspectives have ruined the learning experiences of many curious students across a variety of domains and halted their pursuit of knowledge.

Unfortunately, these are also beliefs that many teachers hold. These teachers believe that if a student can’t learn something as fast as their peers, they are forever doomed in that subject. Even worse, many teachers treat them as such.

Encouragement is replaced by pity. Pity causes the teacher to treat the student as less than capable. The student absorbs this energy and performs accordingly. This downward spiral is easily avoidable, but only if the teacher takes their role seriously from the start.

Why are students so quick to ask questions and look things up?

Very often, students ask questions simply because they’ve let their ability to think atrophy. Whether it be from choice (“Googling” the answer to a problem) or force (buying into the myth that ease of acquisition is predictive of ability), students are quick to avoid struggle and difficulty.

They believe that if it’s difficult, it must not be worth it. But in order to be successful, students need to believe the exact opposite of that. That’s why when a student asks you a question, you should consider asking it right back to them.

By doing this, you’re forcing them to come up with *some* type of explanation. At the very least, it forces them to think about the problem. You don’t expect a correct answer, but you *should* expect an attempt at an answer.

Struggling to grasp the solution to a problem is useful because any progress you make towards it is uniquely your own. It’s not memorized, given, or contrived. It’s fought for, earned, and won’t be quickly forgotten.

When you ask the question back to the student, you’re giving them an opportunity to struggle.

Remember; asking questions is sometimes a reflex rather than an actual inquiry. When you return their question, many students, after thinking about it for a bit, realize they actually know the answer. They just hadn’t thought deeply enough about it.

The idea is to force the student to use what they know, even if they don’t think they know it. This accomplishes a few notable things for the student:

  • They reinforce their previous knowledge
  • They learn to rely on their own mind and understanding
  • They implicitly learn the value of struggling to solve problems

If you can accomplish these things as a teacher, you can rest easy knowing you’ve helped a student develop their thinking skills.

5) Outstanding teachers make their students excited

At this point, I must reiterate that I’m speaking to you as if you’re dealing with students who want to learn. At the very least, they don’t have any serious objections to what you’re teaching.

For students who have no desire or necessity to learn what you’re teaching, then you have to ask yourself a serious question: Am I teaching something worthwhile? Am I teaching in a way that makes people curious?

Your ego may not like what you uncover. Every class is irrelevant to *someone* if it’s part of the cumpulsory education system.

In an ideal world, you’d only get students interested in what you have to say and offer. For people teaching independently, outside of a school or university system, this is usually the case. I’m not talking to you teachers.

This section is for those who teach in some type of system.

If you make it to the level of teaching something as a job, then I’m assuming you find the subject interesting and engaging. Your job as a teacher—above all things—is to transmit that enthusiasm.

Your competence is assumed. You start with de facto authority. Your responsibility is to pique interest in your topic, at least to the point where a student is not resisting your educational efforts.

If your problem is bureaucracy, administration, or student behavior, I feel for you, but those are beyond the scope of this article. If the problem is your student’s retention of material, motivation to succeed, or interest in the material, then you can solve the issue.

I’ve dealt with teachers who weren’t motivated. I’ve dealt with teachers who weren’t competent. Lack of motivation is a bigger problem.

You can fix incompetence if you’re motivated. If you aren’t motivated, you’ll have no desire to fix your inadequecies.

Aim to be the teacher that makes students like something they didn’t originally care about. If you can successfully generate a positive emotional response in this regard, then you’ve accomplished one of the most difficult things in teaching.

Summary of the important qualities and characteristics of a good teacher

A good teacher creates a learning environment where students feel safe to make mistakes. This cultivates the right attitude about education that turns them into life-long learners, beyond the specific subject that the teacher is teaching.

Good teachers are immune to the curse of knowledge. They never forget what it’s like to not know and their patience and communication skills make it so their students never feel rushed and always feel a connection.

The rest is up to you.

Learn the method I used to earn a physics degree, learn Spanish, and win a national boxing title

  • I was a terrible math student in high school who wrote off mathematics. I eventually overcame my difficulties and went on to earn a B.A. Physics with a minor in math
  • I pieced together the best works on the internet to teach myself Spanish as an adult
  • *I didn’t start boxing until the very old age of 22, yet I went on to win a national championship, get a high-paying amateur sponsorship, and get signed by Roc Nation Sports as a profession.

I’ve used this method to progress in mentally and physically demanding domains.

While the specifics may differ, I believe that the general methods for learning are the same in all domains.

This free e-book breaks down the most important techniques I’ve used for learning.

Get the free book now
Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

Follow me on Twitter.