Education is certainly not straightforward. Unlike law, accountancy, surveying and medicine (and many other professions besides) there is a lot of confusion about what makes for a good teacher or tutor. There is no authoritative point of reference like there is for professions that work according to the law or some other regulatory framework. Nor is there such a large and robust evidence base, as there is for medicine and healthcare.
There is a significant diversity of opinion about what good teaching looks like. A lot of educational research is fairly speculative, based on limited (if any) evidence. Part of the problem is that carrying out educational research is incredibly difficult and existing educational data is difficult to collate and study. Most existing educational data is in the teachers’ heads or in paper books or ring binders, inaccessible to the sorts of sophisticated analysis carried out in other industries.
Even rigorously conducted randomised controlled trials in education can struggle to collect meaningful data and identify the most important factors affecting individual students (see this link for more on this). As a consequence, it is difficult to agree on what a perfect teacher would even look like, much less how to become one. However, we all intuitively realise that some teachers have a profound positive impact on their students.
Common Traits of Good Teachers/Tutors
Entire books could be (and have been) written on good teaching/tuition practice. However, based on our varied educational experiences, we’d like to suggest a few key principles we think can help educators make a positive impact (although, of course, this is absolutely not an exhaustive list – and of course we’d love to hear more from you in the comments below):
- Be extremely attentive to your students – everything they say and do gives you information about their current situation and information is invaluable. Use this to identify where they need more work – both academically and personally.
- Be patient and understanding – they need to believe that you’re on their side and trust that you will help them without making them feel stupid.
- Be firm – make expectations for conduct explicit and enforce them consistently. If students are deliberately doing something wrong, tell them that you know. If they’ve definitely lied, tell them that you know the truth and move on without debate (they will want to defend their lie regardless, but it’s a pointless exercise). If they’ve failed to complete their work, be frank about what the long-term consequence for them will be.
- Be enthusiastic about the subject. If you don’t care about it, neither will they – they might find such relentless enthusiasm odd or even slightly funny at first but it is infectious.
- Be knowledgeable. Demonstrate expertise and expect students to follow suit. Don’t be afraid to give your students more information than they strictly need to know or examples that are not on their course (especially that link ideas or relate to the student’s interests) – it makes for a richer learning experience. Be wary of overloading them, however; both schema theory and cognitive load theory help to explain how to get the balance right. We want the right level of elaboration at the right pace.
- Be persistent – tutors and teachers should always be more persistent than students. Never give up trying to make them love the subject and learn it: it is always possible. Even the most reluctant student can eventually be won over once they begin to get a positive experience of the subject at hand from an engaging tutor.
Students scarcely admit it but they absolutely love enthusiastic teachers, as do parents. For a student, the teachers of a subject very much come to embody that subject for them; if a tutor is dull and disinterested then they will acquire the perception that the subject is dull and uninteresting.
Students respond well to consistent boundaries for their personal conduct and behaviour. Young people are still learning right from wrong. Even once they have learnt this, the parts of their brain that would normally inhibit them and stop them from following through on urges to do things that they shouldn’t remain underdeveloped. Young people don’t yet have the self-control of adults and they will occasionally need a firm, fair and consistent reminder of what conduct is acceptable and what is not.
Students also want their teachers to be personable. They want people they can trust and look up to who are consistent and kind. Ultimately, this is one of the key reasons why tutors and teachers will never be replaced by artificial intelligence – at least not in our lifetime or in those of our children. Edtech can be a fantastic tool for teachers and tutors, saving time and doing the most menial jobs for them, but great educators will always be in high demand – and held in high esteem!
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