Eight Essential Traits for Educators

A few of the skills you'll need—or want to develop—as a teacher.

A few of the skills you'll need—or want to develop—as a teacher.

Being an effective teacher means more than knowing your subject matter and being comfortable in a classroom. You’ll need a set of skills that will help make you a successful educator who can meet the challenges and joys of today’s schools.

1. Empathy and compassion

By trying to understand each student as unique, you’ll not only build positive relationships, you’ll make students feel valued and accepted. When students are confident of their place, they're more receptive to learning. And being attentive to those learning English, students who bully or are being bullied, and those who may exhibit problem behaviors can go a long way to increasing their learning capacity.

2. The ability to let students experiment, while keeping them focused

Learning can be messy. Aim to keep students engaged, thinking, and motivated, using your own enthusiasm as inspiration. Challenge them with the excitement of discovery, and empower them to try until they succeed. At the same time, develop routines that help focus on tasks at hand, make transitions easier, and allow students to share ideas respectfully.

3. A belief in the power of the arts (and play) for learning

The arts have been shown to be a valuable avenue to student learning and improvement. Don’t be afraid to use music, drama, poetry, and visual arts in lessons and problem-solving. Give students space and time for creativity, to try new things—and make learning joyful. If you’re working with young children, give them time to play.

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4. A sense of fairness and social justice

Seek to teach and learn with fairness in mind. Subject matter and the way you teach can also motivate students to make positive change in the world. Take opportunities to show students instances where social justice is needed, or is present. Use books that give good examples of fairness and justice.

5. A willingness to learn from your students

Teachers need to keep an open mind and ask questions as they interact with their students. They’ll learn from you as you’re learning from them. As you find out what students’ interests and experiences are, you can create a thriving classroom environment that works for everyone.

6. A desire for continuous improvement

Teachers who want to inspire students keep their own enrichment in mind. “It’s a profession," says Sydney Chaffee, Lesley alumna and 2017 National Teacher of the Year. “People study their entire lives, and really great teachers are always improving.” Continuous learning, through readings and coursework, practicing new techniques, and self-reflection, can lead to better teaching and new opportunities.

7. Knowing your limits, and keeping your cool

Be realistic in what you can do in a day. You'll probably want to do more than you are able, but that’s okay—there’s tomorrow. Build a professional learning community of trusted colleagues to share with. Understand that compassion fatigue is a possibility, and learn how to avoid it. Practice patience with yourself and your students, with a spirit of understanding, some deep breaths, and a recalibration of expectations.

8. Keeping a sense of humor

In the classroom, you’ll see it all: the sublime, the poignant, the ridiculous, the unbelievable, the unexpected, the off-the-wall, the just plain inexplicable. Having a sense of humor can keep you grounded in reality, and a good laugh can help put things in perspective. Humor can also be used to resolve a difficult situation, when done with respect and affection.


You may not have all of these traits (and you may have great ones not listed here), or some traits may be stronger than others. Don’t worry. What’s important is to learn and grow as a teacher, to know what you need to do and be, and to work toward that—for the good of yourself and your lucky students.

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