What Makes a Great Teacher?

Some time ago, The Atlantic featured a noteworthy article titled, What Makes a Great Teacher? Although the article does not focus on gifted education per se, it is still worth a close read. The article discusses specific attributes that excellent teachers with exceptional track records tend to display in the classroom. (It is important to note that these attributes are based on research that was conducted by the nonprofit organization, Teach for America, which advocates for teacher reform. It is also important to note that the group's research focuses solely on teachers who work in underperforming school districts where the primary goal in the general education classroom is to get students to perform at or above grade level.) The article outlines several specific recommendations that the organization makes for recruiting and hiring successful teachers, particularly in underserved communities.

For those of us in the gifted education community, the traits identified in the article may be ones that we should, perhaps, consider first before we consider any additional teacher characteristics that might be specific to gifted education.

Amanda Ripley, the author of The Atlantic article, writes that although parents worry about sending their children to the “right” schools, statistical research shows that the schools themselves do not matter as much as the quality of the individual teachers. Ripley notes: “Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools—even supposedly good schools—than among schools. But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way." Teach for America (a nonprofit organization that recruits college graduates to spend 2 years teaching in underperforming, high-poverty schools) has been working to change this. According to Ripley, the organization has spent more than a decade rigorously studying the educational outcomes of kids in underperforming school districts in an admirable attempt to explain "why some teachers can move those kids three grade levels ahead in one year," while others are unable to accomplish this.

By following students in underperforming school districts and analyzing the techniques and attributes of the school districts' teachers, the organization concluded that the most effective teachers in those school districts displayed five professional qualities. They
  • tended to set big goals for their students
  • were perpetually looking for ways to improve their personal effectiveness
  • avidly recruited students and their families into the process
  • maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning
  • planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome
  • worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls. 
Teach for America has also carefully studied what to look for when hiring candidates for its program. Many of the assumptions that they held in the early years of the program about which candidates would make exceptionally effective teachers were found to be unreliable. However, three traits stood out as very important. Such traits included
  • A history of perseverance. (Recruiters at Teach for America believe that tenacious, goal-oriented individuals tend to "work harder and stay committed to their goals longer.")
  • A positive, happy attitude. (As Ripley notes: "Teachers who scored high in 'life satisfaction'—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less-satisfied colleagues.")
  • A record of achievement. (Ripley writes: "Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and 'leadership achievement'—a record of running something and showing tangible results.") 
A master’s degree in education was found to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

You can read more about the model that Teach for America uses in Teaching as Leadership: TheHighly Effective Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, by Steven Farr.


  1. Would also suggest that great teachers, at least the ones I've studied with and those reflected in current research, are those who set before us high levels of intellectual challenge, structure the learning environment so we ask good questions and conduct purposeful investigations, think critically and reflect on our work. This focus shifts the control focus from entirely on the teacher to one that is shared with students where they are setting goals for their own education. In such an environment teachers and students learn with and from each other.


Your comments will be available after approval.