In the May/June 2006 issue of Instructor magazine (p. 33) there is an article by Pamela Wheaton Shorr entitled “What’s On Your Principal’s Mind?”  In the article Shorr posed questions to principals and reported the results.  One question, in particular, caught my attention:  What qualities matter most in a teacher?  Here’s Shorr’s report:

Passion for teaching and compassion for students topped the list for most principals.  “I’m looking for people who teach with dedication,” notes Dr. Yvonne Chan, an award-winning principal at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Los Angeles, California, and a member of the State Board of Education.  “Skills can always be learned.”

But, administrators say, this passion for teaching must be paired with compassion – a love of students and the wish to advocate for them and help them reach their full potential.   Mike Scholz, who was an assistant principal for 13 years and is now in his first year as principal of Mascoutah High School in Mascoutah, Illinois, says he wants his teachers to be involved with kids outside the classroom.  “I look for teachers who give extra of themselves,” he says, noting that it’s important for teachers to run extracurricular activities and clubs and show up at school events to show how important the kids are to them.

Other key teaching qualities include an interest in continuing professional development, commitment to the overall school community, subject knowledge, and understanding of the developmental stages of children.

Oh my.  Where do I begin in responding to that?  Am I the only one who thinks that’s a bunch of hooey?  Okay, maybe not hooey, but while those qualities SOUND good, they’re not the real world, necessary, use-every-day qualities of excellent teachers.

Understanding of child development, knowledge of subject matter and how to teach it are givens as long as our colleges and universities are doing their job of preparing teachers.  Passion for teaching, interest in ongoing professional development and compassion for children should also be givens for anyone contemplating a career in teaching.  These “givens” are the basic requirements to be even considered for a teaching position.  Excellent teaching is much more.

There are two sentences from the article that bother me.  The first is: “Skills can always be learned.”  Well, no they can’t.  Part of good teaching is knowing when to teach what.  That’s part of the “knowing about child development” requirement.  Teachers can love teaching and have boundless compassion for their students, and then love them right into ignorance. I’ve seen it happen. Unless they know how to motivate students and teach the necessary skills and subject matter, the passion and compassion aren’t worth much.

The second thing that bothered me was: “. . . he wants his teachers to be involved with the kids outside the classroom. . . . to show how important the kids are to them.”  The best way I can show my students how important they are to me is to be an excellent teacher for them.  Teachers can’t be everything to students, and if we spend our non-school hours running extra-curricular activities and clubs and attending school events, we will burn out quickly.

I love teaching and I love the fact that I am making a positive difference in the lives of children. However,  I don’t attend school activities outside of school hours – not much anyway.  I participate in events when I can and when they’re interesting to me or when children I teach are directly involved in them.  I already put in many days of work beyond my contract in order to get my classroom ready each year and to finish the things I’m required to do and the things I want to do for the children I teach.  I come to work early and leave late many days in order to do what I need to do for my students.  However, I value my time, and I have many interests outside of my job.  Teaching is a noble and wonderful and necessary profession, but it is not my life.  If I died tomorrow, another teacher would quickly take my place.  My family, my friends, my church, and myself are ahead of teaching in my list of priorities.

Ok, so I disagree with what the principals who were interviewed said were the qualities that matter most in teachers.  What, then, are the qualities I think are important?  After teaching over 25 years in just about all the elementary grades, in different schools in different states and in varying environments, I would say that the following qualities are necessary for a great teacher:

(1) A great teacher is flexible: Schedules are changed, a child throws up, you have a fire drill, it rains and you lose your planning time because recess must be indoors, an assembly is called, a school bus breaks down,  upset parents meet you at the door.  A good teacher MUST be able to roll with the punches and not get flustered with a constantly changing environment.  You adapt your plans to the new circumstances and move on.

(2) A great teacher is a team player:  No teacher is an island.  You work with a team of either grade level or subject area colleagues.  Your schedules are entertwined.  If you can’t work well with others, you won’t be successful.

(3) A great teacher is professional:  You will be privy to confidential information about students, parents, and sometimes other teachers.  You keep that information to yourself or share it only through the proper channels. Professionalism is about respect for yourself and others.

(4) A great teacher has a thick skin: You’re working for hours each day with the pride and joy of parents.  No matter how conscientious and diplomatic you are, at some point you will have conflict with parents.  You have to be able to take criticism and questions and respond professionally and with compassion – always keeping what’s best for the student in mind. 

(5) A great teacher is organized: The amount of paperwork involved in teaching is staggering.  There are papers to grade, records to keep, assessments to make, lessons to plan – and teach, letters to write, meetings to attend, phone calls to make. . . It is mind-boggling at times.  If you’re not organized, you will never be your best.  Teaching is multi-tasking at its highest level.

(6) A great teacher is a cheerleader.  This ties in with passion for teaching and compassion for students.  Sometimes we are the only cheerleaders our students have.  We must encourage them and brag on them and push them and guide them and love them. 

Those are my six necessary qualities for a great teacher.  What do you think?  In your opinion, what are the most important qualities in a teacher?

Sphere: Related Content

9 Responses to “What Do Principals Look For in a Teacher?”

  1. The Education Wonks: The Carnival Of Education: Week 65 - Thoughts And Ideas Freely Exchanged Says:

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  2. Ms Cornelius Says:

    Well, this is the wrong time of the year for me to read that principals expect me to spend untold hours of my “free” time at school without remuneration. I am lucky that my principal is not like that.

    What does matter? That I am a good instructor, that I am a team player (did principals’ supervision when they were stretched too thin), etc., just as you stated.

    These administrators are looking for indentured servants, which means vulnerable probationary teachers, who then burn out at an astronomical rate. This attitude does not help the profession.

  3. kim Says:

    I am a teacher and I love my students, but I have boundaries so I can be at my best!

  4. carol Says:

    Thanks Ms Cornelius and kim for commenting. I think some principals need to go back to the classroom for awhile to re-acquaint themselves with reality.

  5. Chris Says:


    Stumbled across your site after a recent discussion with a friend who has just begun his teacher training – he asked me questions that required similar answers to your own thoughts on what made a good teacher. I found your points to be interesting considering we are half a world a way the issues and dynamics are the same for teachers whether they work in Australia or the US. I have always felt it would do all school administrators good to still have to take one class group. I spent two years at one stage away from direct classroom work writing curriculum for our education department and it doesn’t take long before your ideas become unworkable in the real environment of day to day teaching.

  6. Erin Says:

    Id like to see all admin be made to teach 1 semester every 3 years in order to renew their admin cred. The amount of additional work teachers are required to do in California to become teachers and keep their cred. is absolutely disgusting… and dont get me started on BTSA!

  7. Gwen Harris Says:

    Erin hit the nail right on the nose. Admin need to get back into the classroom for one full semester to be reminded of what truely goes on in the classroom. The fact that they were once there is nice, but how soon they forget.

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