Traits of a Good Teacher: Insight from Maryland T.O.Y. Jody Zepp

Guest blogger Jody Zepp shares her insight on the most important characteristics of a good teacher. Zepp is 2014-15 Maryland Teacher of the Year and a government and psychology teacher at Hammond High School.

I believe a teacher is someone who is willing and humble enough to drink from the instructional wells of those who have preceded us and continue to be nourished by them.

I come from a family of educators. My father was a professor and my mother was an elementary school teacher. My oldest brother is a high school teacher and my older sister is an elementary school teacher. Each provides inspiration, encouragement, and perhaps most important of all, the never-ending sense of wonder that truly is teaching.

So when I was asked to outline some of the characteristics that I think are commonly found within great educators, I think that faith, experience, compassion, conviction, and confidence are among the chief elements needed to inspire young people to reach their potential.

Faith: It is imperative that teachers demonstrate a sustained belief and faith in all students, and be mindful not to give “gotcha” tests or grade students on behaviors. We must recognize that among our “regular” students are, in fact, “advanced” students and advocate in their behalf. Students cannot talk about a future until they can see one.

Experience: In psychology, we talk about learning as the relatively permanent change in behavior as a function of experience. So it is the experience that precedes all else when it comes to learning. I have found that very little significant happens in the classroom apart from relationships; therefore providing a learning experience must begin with relationships – relationships of trust, relationships of never-giving-up, relationships of walking-with-your-students.

Compassion: Carl Jung suggested that, “If we have to deal with the human soul, we must meet it on its own ground and we are bound to do so when confronted with the real and crushing problems of life.” We do have to deal with the human soul in the classroom and we do have to meet it on its own ground. Our students bring a multitude of real and crushing problems of life into that doorjamb every single day. If we are not bound to confront them as teachers with humanity and understanding, then we will never be able to establish a human experience from which to learn anything together.

Conviction: The degree to which a teacher is disheartened is adversely affected in the classroom. A heartened teacher, on the other hand, knows that students can see a future when they are empowered in the classroom, when they feel a sense of self-actualization with academic progress, when their learned self-fulfilling prophecy of failure is no longer perpetuated, when the “stereotype threat” is lifted, and when the teacher is walking that talk. A heartened teacher is dedicated to a student’s fundamental right to learn, is moving “regular” students to advanced classes, is not going to give up on their struggle to succeed on state and college exams, is not going to allow students to fail on his or her watch, does not want to see what will be a fifth generation of girls in the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. A heartened teacher is salient in conviction about her belief that education is an equalizer and that the best for the best of students is the best for all students. As John Stuart Mill stated, “One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests.” That is what I live with my students every day as I go to the mat on principle on their behalf.

Confidence: Great teachers are secure with who they are and why they are. They are fearless about their passion and are willing to capture learning no matter how zany the method or activity. They engage in raw, often uncomfortable, introspection on a daily basis and reflect on how well their instruction can be measured, and, therefore, how the instruction needs to be modified, differentiated, and adjusted accordingly. Great teachers understand that the student experience in the classroom transfers directly into the testing environment, so great teachers do not begin the day with “What am I going to do today?” but rather, “What are the students going to learn today?” Great teachers understand what I call “the pedagogy of the heart,” because experiencing something in our heart helps us to live it more effectively and to teach it more effectively. We want great learning and we want learned greatness.

Learn more about Jody Zepp and her experiences as Maryland Teacher of the Year.