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How to Stay Successful: Six Qualities All Great Teachers Have

Great teachers are made, not born. Most teachers remember that first year on the job, and I’m no exception. In year one, I had a wild bunch of 12th grade students who made me think about quitting on a daily basis. One of them, definitely in the top ten of the most challenging students I have ever worked with, would arrive late each day, banging on the row of lockers outside my classroom and yodeling to announce his arrival. It took me several months to realize that I had a class full of students that most teachers had given up on, and it took even longer to figure out how to manage the class and stick with it. However, by the end of the year, those 12th graders and I formed a connection that could not be shaken.

Not all stories from the trenches can have such happy endings, unfortunately. On average, teachers leave the classroom somewhere between three to five years after entering the profession. Retention is one of the most serious issues plaguing education. What, then, do successful teachers all have in common? These six qualities are pervasive in teachers who have not only stuck it out, but who continue to thrive year after year.

Sense of Humor

Last year, I was headed down the hallway when a little boy in front of me, apropos of nothing, squatted and urinated on the tile. Anyone who teaches can speak to the constant, often extreme nature of what happens in school buildings. Unless we can laugh about the small things that don’t matter, it is hard to stay positive about bigger problems that do make a difference. For example, I used to work at a school where interruptions to instruction were commonplace, usually through announcements over the PA system. Invariably, these constant disruptions, often about unimportant details that could wait (like the school citrus fundraiser) were frustrating and completely threw off whatever I was doing at that moment. When I got cut off repeatedly, the only thing to do was laugh. Otherwise, I’d become angry and it would affect my instruction even more. Keeping my focus on the larger priority of teaching a class well and remaining stable for my students was possible because we all took a moment to recognize the absurdity of the situation and move on. When teachers experience so many earth-shattering problems on a regular basis, figuring out where to get some comic relief is necessary for survival in the profession.

Intrinsic Motivation

Do we all enjoy a luncheon sponsored by the PTA? Of course, but that does not make us feel better about what we do in the classroom. The rewards of teaching usually come from within, and teachers who are driven by a deeper sense of purpose are both happier and last longer. The source of our inner desire to teach must be personally significant, which is why teaching feels more like a calling than a job. When we talk to successful teachers about what moves them to come back each year, similar threads appear. Some talk about a teacher who believed in them and inspired them to do something similar. Conversely, others talk about teachers who did not believe in them, and how they want to create a different experience for a new generation of children. Many express value in being a source of stability and consistency for students who might not have the most pleasant personal lives, while others discuss the pleasure of knowing they do a job that makes a difference. Whatever the purpose behind the professional, teachers who make it beyond those initial years continue to be driven by that inner flame. After all, if external motivation were a characteristic that teachers shared for selecting education as a pathway, they would have probably gone into a much higher-paying field.

Flexibility

More often than I would like to admit, lesson plans have blown up in my face due to unforeseen circumstances. Human beings are highly unpredictable, and the best laid plans go haywire. Successful teachers not only accept that things will change, but also go farther in embracing that aspect of the job. A colleague put it best last week when he learned that come March 1st, he will be teaching in person after a year of virtual instruction: “It doesn’t matter where I teach or how I teach; I just want to teach.” The ability to pivot quickly and without negativity is a quality that teachers with lasting power share. Think about all the changes that occur, from curriculum to policies and procedures, on a continuous basis. Most of these factors are out of any teacher’s control, but our power lies in how we react to challenges. In particular, when students have needs that do not necessarily align with what we had planned, it is important to consider whether we can accommodate them, and if not, why not. If we value learning over lesson plans, then flexibility becomes a very doable norm.

Gratitude

How often do we pause and thank the powers above for job security? For the honor of watching children grow? For daily work that actually means something and helps people? Some people go to offices, sit at desks or have meetings, and cannot necessarily account for what they did at the end of the day in terms of impact. That is never a problem that teachers will have, since we see that impact in both the short and long term on a constant basis. Whether through the student who stays after class to talk each day because that is a safe space, or the student who shows marked improvement after receiving some extra attention, teachers reap rewards on a constant basis. These benefits do not come easily, but we can be grateful to have such a visible effect on the students we work with, and by extension, on our surrounding communities.

Persistent and Consistent

One of my favorite quotations is, “If you are persistent, you will get it. If you are consistent, you will keep it.”  Sticking with our work, even through periods of burnout or frustration, is valuable if we can come through to the other side as better teachers. Not every year will be the year we feel our best, and that is all right provided that we keep trying to figure out what works about our methods, and what needs to be changed. Ideally, even teachers who grapple with difficult times do not put their struggles on display for students. When we look at exemplary teachers, they are reliable and a source of stability for students. In other words, even in moments of doubt, they do not ever waver from their persistence in getting better and growing with their practice.

Belief in All Children

We all know the teacher who gripes about kids, the one who sits in a lounge (in pre-Covid times, anyway) and just unleashes one complaint after another. I used to work with one such teacher, and one day, a colleague finally said what we had all been thinking: “If you hate your classes so much, why are you even here?” If we do not believe that all children can learn, we need to revisit our choice of profession. Teachers who are in it for the long haul have a deep-seated belief that it is their job to motivate students. Just as great teachers are made and not born, few students enter a classroom with mastery of the content, nor should that be an expectation. It is our job to believe that all students can be successful and grow, and to put our professional energy toward helping them get there. Furthermore, we must maintain a growth mindset, one that attaches the word “yet” to any skill not yet mastered. Maybe students will not always succeed with us, but we cannot stop believing that one day, they will.

Now, 21 years after entering the teaching profession, I think back quite often to those early years. Even though that first year in particular gave me quite a run for my money, I have never forgotten the names of the students from that 12th grade class. Now in their late 30s, some of them still check in with me from time to time, and we have a bond that comes from getting through a difficult experience together. The truth is, there is no one reason that teachers make it through those first years and continue for many years to come. Rather, it is a collection of qualities that help us to stick with a job that requires a whole lot of hard work, a healthy sense of humor, and the desire to keep going — come what may.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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