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10 Habits of Every Great Teacher

As the new school year encroaches upon the last, lingering days of summer, it’s easy to be overwhelmed at the prospect of new lesson plans and new students, at long days and assessments galore. It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutia of planning to teach, thus losing sight of the big picture. So to help us focus, I asked some of our expert-teacher friends what habits all great teachers display. Here’s what they said:

George Grant, recipient of the 2017 Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, founder King’s Meadow Study Center

Start afresh—every year, every semester, every day, every class. Because the best teaching is simply loving what I love in front of my students, it is vital that whatever it is I’m teaching is fresh in my heart and mind. Though I have taught some of the same courses again and again and again over the past quarter century, I really never look back at old notes (except perhaps to find specific quotes or illustrations). I want my reading for each class to be fresh. I want my research to be fresh. I want my lesson plans to be fresh. I want my heart to be fresh. Of course, I build on what I’ve learned over the course of the past several years. But, there are so many new things to learn—and if my students sense that I’m learning right along with them, the impact will be all the more fruitful, both for them and for me. So, I try to set aside the tyranny of the urgent and maintain the long, slow habit of starting afresh.

David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility, recipient of the 2002 Russell Kirk Paideia Prize

Begin each class or reading assignment with a provocative question geared both to the age and interests of your students and to the work at hand. (If you can’t find the question, you have the wrong work or shouldn’t be teaching it.) If your question is one that intrigues your students and to which they’d like to find an answer, you have assured the success of your lesson and placed yourself in a position not to give them the answer, but to help them find an answer. Their answers, of course, provide the basis for the critical discussion that follows and turns your classroom into a symposium.

Greg Wilbur, President of New College Franklin

Education necessarily has a spiritual dimension whether or not it is the direct focus of the lesson—all education is religious education. Growth in wisdom, as identified in scripture, cannot occur if divorced from spiritual sensitivity; thus, a good teacher needs to be consciously mindful of the souls of her students. This does not mean that you baptize every lesson with a scripture verse, but rather you take into account the spiritual formation of the students via the content and manner of what you teach. All of the disciplines of study either reflect God’s works of creation (the created order, numbers, cosmos, music, science, etc.) or His works of providence (history, philosophy, theology, people, and nations). The more you learn, the humbler you are in the face of all you do not know—which leads to wonder and awe at the Almighty and the works of His hands. A student can be smart and know a lot of facts, but true virtue and wisdom is found in knowledge that is put into practice—and this engages the soul. Be mindful of the souls of your students at all times: in the content of your lessons, the ways in which you teach, how you grade, how you provide discipline and encouragement, how you pray for them, and how you tend your own spirit.

Tracy Lee Simmons, author of Climbing Parnassus, recipient of the 2005 Russell Kirk Paideia Prize

For a long time it’s been an ideal of the best teachers to burn their class notes every year. I recall being advised by a trusted teacher to do just that when I began my own teaching life, to discard my notes in May or June so that I would approach every course, every year, with freshness in the fall. Well, much as I would like to admit that I took the advice, I haven’t. But I have done what I like to think is the next best thing: I create completely new sets of notes BASED UPON the notes of the year before–and in so doing, I typically end up retaining no more than 25% of the previous year’s jottings. They’re better notes each year. Refurbishing notes keeps me on my toes: I retain the essential outline of the content while blowing a cool breeze through my logic and illustrations, and of course any examples from the public square of our political and cultural life must benefit from constant reworking. Obviously, different disciplines require different approaches, but for the humanities, I can say that this method has worked especially well for me. So what do I do with the old notes? Those I do finally burn (figuratively). Recently, when a former student who had lost his notebook from my course appealed to me to see my own notes from that year, I had to tell him that they had gone, ceremoniously, to the file cabinet of the great beyond.

Tim McIntosh, former Provost of Gutenberg College, co-host of the Close Reads Podcast

“The relationship between the teacher and students is the tide that causes all ships to rise.” My first teaching-mentor told me that. And I promptly ignored him. But after a semester of floundering, of wondering, “Why aren’t my students listening to my lectures?”, I remembered my teaching-mentor’s advice and changed my approach: I lectured less. I listened more. I prayed for my students. I think that the students sensed the change. They took more ownership and they transformed from a classroom into a community of fellow-learners. That’s what I see. Great teachers invest in relationships.

Cindy Rollins, recipient of the 2016 Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, author of Mere Motherhood

I hesitate to say this because it sounds like a one-upper answer, a little too precious; but I can’t not say it because each day it is pressed upon me as the one habit needful for teaching. It is prayer. Prayer is a way of seeing. Education is a way of seeing. Prayer trains our mind like no other habit. Simone Weil says that prayer is the ultimate goal of attention. We can pray for wisdom and we can pray for our students, but prayer opens our eyes to see those things we might have missed. It starts out inward and moves us out of ourselves. The more we venture out of ourselves, the more we see how needful the habit of prayer is to the teacher.

Andrew Kern, President of the CiRCE Institute, author of Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America

A good teacher masters the following habits:

For every lesson he teaches, he knows the context of the lesson. He also grasps the point he is trying to make, the question he wants to explore, or the skill he wants to coach. To that end, he does the necessary research, orders what he collects in appropriate ways, determines the most suitable means to express it, remembers what he needs to remember, and delivers the lesson in the most effective way. He is able to weave anything that arises into the lesson, and keeps his heart wide open to the students in front of him. He assesses student work in ways that sustain and bless the student without distracting him from the ends contained in the lesson. The whole cosmos is his curriculum.

Peter Vande Brake, leader of the CiRCE Institute Atrium program

Of course there are many habits that good teachers have, but if I can only talk about one, I will settle on curiosity. Curiosity renews a teacher’s excitement and joy for teaching because a curious teacher continually has new information to present to his or her students. There is nothing that a teacher loves more than being able to get a student excited about the subject matter that he or she loves and has made a career out of teaching. It leads a teacher to constant discoveries about the world and the Creator of that world. Curiosity compels a teacher to ask good questions about what he or she wants to know which fosters a sense of inquiry that the teacher can then pass on to students. Students will learn to be inquisitive about their world by imitating their teacher. It is this spirit of inquiry that drives education according to David Hicks who says this:

“Classical education is not pre-eminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry. Everything springs from the special nature of the inquiry. The inquiry dictates the form of instruction and establishes the moral framework for thought and action” (Hicks, 18).

So then, the habit of being curious is one of the essential habits of a good teacher. Curiosity leads to inquiry, and inquiry is at the very heart of education itself.

Brian Phillips, Director of CiRCE consulting

Given the likely readership for this list, it may be preaching to the choir to say it, but one habit of a great teacher is ongoing learning. We all say we want our children or students to be “lifelong learners,” but if a teacher is to survive the grind of successive school years, they must “take in” more than they are giving out. And this is not just for the sake of a teacher’s sanity and energy – it is also a blessing to the student. In Norms & Nobility David Hicks wrote:

“Schools are places where students learn because they are places where teachers learn. Only a school (and by extension a curriculum) that encourages teachers to be always learning will keep its teachers fresh and fearless and its students happy and motivated in their studies, ready to test their lessons against life.”

Joshua Gibbs, Veritas School in Richmond, VA

A good teacher is in the habit of eating and drinking well. A good teacher does not give his students the impression that all he cares for is books, though he also gives his students the impression he cares very deeply for books. A good teacher describes his weekend every Monday morning, and he makes his weekend sound compelling, enviable. A good teacher tells his students what he has done in the hope that they will do such things, as well. A good teacher shares his life outside the classroom with his students, and his students understand that the academy is consistent with a full, delightful life, but is not exactly equal to it. A good teacher defies his students’ impression that adults live drab lives and have dull taste. A good teacher bequeaths a spirit of sophistication to his students by performing his tastes, and there is no more important place to start, so far as aesthetics is concerned, than in the preparation, consumption, and enjoyment of meat and wine.

Matt Bianco, Head Mentor in the CiRCE Apprenticeship

How do you avoid your lesson going in one proverbial ear and out the other? Whatever you do, do not answer questions that have not been asked. The lesson least likely to be retained is the lesson that answers an unasked question. It flies right over the heads of the students. Time, its shortness rather, makes us think we must sometimes tell the students what they need to know. These lessons, however, are rarely learned. It is better to guide them toward what they can learn, even if time is our enemy, than it is to surrender to time and begin telling.

The good teacher will develop habits of provoking necessary questions from their students, rather than answering unasked questions. The good teacher will give students the opportunity to discover truth on their own, rather than dump truth on them. As David Hicks writes in Norms & Nobility, “Only the careless and unskilled teacher answers questions before they are asked. The teacher’s chief task is to provoke the question, not to answer it; to cultivate in his students an active curiosity, not to inundate them in factual information” (Hicks, 129).

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