3 Simple Things Great Teachers Do


cartoon-fruit-apple-08Quick: take a moment to think about the single greatest teacher you ever had. Someone who inspired you, engaged you, and maybe even changed the trajectory of your life.

Perhaps it’s a coach, maybe a high-school teacher, maybe a relative — it doesn’t matter.

Now picture their face.

(Got it?)

When you think about that person, which of the following comes to mind:

  • A) A life lesson that person taught you
  • B) A goal that that person helped you achieve
  • C) The way that person made you feel

If you’re like most people, it’s no contest.

The answer is (C).

The lesson of this little exercise is simple: the greatest teachers aren’t great just because they deliver information. They’re great because they create lasting connections. They’re not about the words they say; they’re about the way they make you feel.

I’m not talking about mere social skills. I’m talking about the ability David Foster Wallace was talking about when he wrote this:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority…. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

Which leads us to a question: how do we find teachers like this, both for ourselves and our kids? How do we develop this quality in ourselves?

I thought it might be good to start a conversation by identifying a pattern I’ve seen in my research and the related science: three simple things that master teachers tend to do.

1) They are exceptionally good at small talk.  

Most master teachers don’t start sessions by teaching. They start by connecting. They want to chat, to engage, to figure out where you are, who you are, and what makes you tick.

A few years back, Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford organized an extensive video-based study on the habits of the most successful math tutors, and discovered a curious fact: the best tutors started each session by engaging in idle chat. They talked about the weather, or school, or family — anything but math.

This seems nonsensical, until you consider the role small talk plays in building trust. We do not naturally give our trust to people; small talk is the doorway to trust and learning.

2) They ask LOTS of questions.  

We instinctively think of great teachers as repositories of knowledge, and deliverers of brilliant speeches and lectures. This is hugely wrong. From Socrates to John Wooden, great teaching is about asking the right questions, not about providing the answers.

Lepper’s study showed that the most effective tutors spent 80 to 90 percent of their time asking questions. They weren’t dictating the truth, they were doing something far more important: creating a platform where the learner can struggle toward  the answers.

Geno Auriemma, coach of UConn’s nine-time national championship women’s basketball team, is particularly good at doing this. From a recent profile:

Here’s the phrase Auriemma utters most often to his players at practice. “Figure it out!” he bawls.

If he says it once, he says it a hundred times. He halts practice every time a kid looks at him quizzically, and asks, “What do I do here?”

“Figure it out,” he insists. “What do you think you should do here? Why do you need me to tell you all the time what to do here?”

3) They have a good sense of humor.

Yes, there are a few ultra-serious teachers out there who rarely crack a smile (I’m looking at you, ballet teachers), but the vast majority of master teachers use humor the same way you might employ a Swiss Army knife: as a multi-purpose social tool. Humor can defuse tension, create common ground, and build bonds. In other words, being funny isn’t just funny — it’s also smart.

Which brings us to the next question: what other skills should we add to this list? What fundamental skills did your best teachers possess, and how did they make you better? I’m eager to see what you think.

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14 Responses to “3 Simple Things Great Teachers Do”

  1. Rich Kent says:

    Master teachers and coaches have a knack of seeing a better version of their students and athletes than they themselves see. In a creative writing class, my 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Catherine Puiia, said to me, “Richard, you could be a professional writer some day.” And that’s exactly what I became…along with being an English teacher. Thanks, Mrs. Puiia.

  2. Rick Higgins says:

    Thanks Coach Tom Lane for believing in me when I did not believe in myself.

  3. Ben says:

    Great post. Reminds me of a quote along the lines of: “Noone cares what you know, until they know how much you care.”

    Tim Sanders has written a great book called The Likeability Factor that relates to this idea. Great teachers and coaches tend to be able to establish a rapport or connection before they even begin to communicate technical info.

  4. terryofaulkner says:

    This article brings up some good points and reinforces to me why I became a teacher. I never had good teachers and I wanted to become what my teachers never were. Every little bit I learn can help me bring the best out of my students so thanks to you Mr. Coyle for sharing your insights.

  5. Robert says:

    Looks into the mirror.
    smiles widely.

  6. Great article. Soft, but key skills for coaches.

    Many greats do this intuitively i’m sure, but good to know to add this consciously to a coaching experience

  7. Betsy Walker says:

    Thanks for this great post and a reminder to take the time to reconnect even if you see someone on a regular basis. While I think I do a fairly good job of connecting and showing I genuinely care, I struggle in the sense of humor area. How does one develop a sense of humor that does not seem forced or concocted when your whole life you have been the serious and focused type A personality?

  8. Aashon says:

    Master Coaches also allow Their students to have input in techniques that they may feel comfortable with and dislike (which means the coach must have multiple ways of catering to the individual). It creates an environment where they feel that they have say, and therefore take more ownership in what they’re doing

  9. Robert says:

    Often I am the F personality meaning “Funny”.
    Sometimes I am the C personality, “comical”.
    Then when I really want it I go for the P personality the “Prankster”.

    Humor means you have some distance to stuff. While work is good, while focus is good sometimes you just need a really good fart to get things going.
    Find out what you think is funny either movies, shows, stand up and then apply whats funny there into the area you work with.

    People ask me, why do you carry that mirror around?
    Me: I got to check if its me carrying it.

  10. doc says:

    Betsy, Type A and humourless are not synonyms. Think Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Joan Rivers etc. etc., all comedians and all Type A’s. Sometimes dry humour is funnier than hilarity, which makes me wonder if there is wet humour. At any rate, humour is usually a skill to be developed just like anything else.

  11. Zainab Sajid says:

    Thank you for this informative post.
    It is really very profound, and as a high school student, it reminded me of my past doting teachers who always inspired me to do better. Currently, I still have some novel but exceptional teachers (some of them) who possess the same traits mentioned in your write up.

  12. Stephen Pier says:

    To prove your point (and shatter your stereotype), my best ballet teachers had wonderful senses of humor! Real wit and self awareness.

  13. Nevin Gorki says:

    I love the list and I think I have employed the 3 things without actually consciously considering it.
    A 4th I would add to the list is a great teacher ” sets the tone” . He/she always brings a positive/enthusiastic attitude and portrays calmness in the face of any storms. This instills into the team a sense of confidence which allows them to achieve more than they thought possible. A great teacher is always honest with his/her players and creates an environment where players feel comfortable taking risks and taking on challenges without fear of reprisal. This helps to further develop confidence and mental toughness in the players. An environment is created where teammates encourage each other while still being able to compete hard against each other in training and against other teams in games.

  14. PS Chakraborty says:

    I think this is very relevant to the topic and goes to the bottom of how we think and how our mind works. A very thoughful piece of writing. True to the word.

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