The Qualities of a Good Teacher

“So what does a good teacher do? Create tension- but just the right amount.” (Donald Norman)

What are the qualities of a good teacher? It is another of those difficult questions for which there is no single answer. Though teachers come from different walks of life we normally associate this most important of vocations to education. “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” This recognizable quote from Henry Adams, the 19th century American historian and intellectual, is brilliant in capturing the significance and consequence of the craft. Broadly speaking we could connect the “teacher” to any position of authority whose role it is to instruct and to lead by example. That is, to serve not only in their prime position of educator, but also as role model. Parents, most would agree, are at the top of the teaching pyramid. Here, we are specifically looking at the educator, those persons who step into a classroom and are typically given charge of a young group of people. More than the requirement for high-quality training, the character or disposition of the teacher is the most important of all qualities.

We find countless lists of what makes a “good teacher”. Invariably, and with good reason: ability to motivate and to inspire, leadership, command of subject, communication and listening skills, patience, flexibility, vision, trust, humour, and professionalism. Wisdom, the exercise of good judgement and the practise of discernment cannot be taught. That comes with experience and is at the core of the pedagogical framework. Indeed, without at least some of these qualities the teaching of anything is doomed. There are three other qualities however, which underpin those mentioned above and allow for even the most “uneducated” and “least qualified” amongst us to become truly great teachers. Some of the greatest teachers have not ticked the “right boxes” and do not have a resume registering famed alma maters or cataloguing pages of publications. Many have been unschooled, rejected and overlooked in the world, only to be discovered later. What are the essential qualities that most would look for in an inspirational teacher and which would give substance to all else? These are humility, passion, and sacrifice. It is always assumed, of course, that knowledge and the engagement of critical dialogue [which is the love and pursuit of truth] are the underlying principles in the educational process.

  • Humility, the modest view of our own self-importance, is the founding block to teaching. It is this interior quality, the most priceless of attributes which permits for the teacher to both give and to receive instruction, to be open to correction as he or she teaches and corrects others.
  • Passion, but not with a “paroxysm” for the subject which is being taught. It is an unrehearsed enthusiasm to teach the subject and to share in the larger or smaller fragments of the revelation.
  • Sacrifice, to be willing to give up of himself or herself in ways not normally expected, so that the student might thrive and shine. Even if this means the laying down of one’s own life that the student might live in the place of the teacher: not only metaphorically, but also literally.
“What else?” asked the young pupil of the old man.
Discernment, you simply must have discernment,” he responded cheerfully.
“What do you mean?” the young pupil persisted.
“To know when to encourage and to never, but to never clip the wings…
Oh yes and do not forget to allow for improvisation,” the old man added parting the waves from his head.


Not surprisingly given the capacities and potential of our human nature, we are not bereft of majestic examples of great teachers. There are many. They rise and set like little suns. Their hearts and minds are fuelled with compassion. The common goal to teach the ability to see. From the ancient world the illustrious Socrates elenctic method notwithstanding, symbolizes [and represents] in his selfless and sensible person all of the enumerated qualities mentioned above. In more recent times Viktor Frankl embodies the greatness of the teaching vocation and its ecumenical scope borne and realized from within the most terrible atrocity of the holocaust. And from the world’s indigenous cultures we learn the critical importance of the teacher not forgetting to draw upon his or her experience and background in the passing on of knowledge. For the community of believers we turn to Jesus Christ, the highest example of teacher for Christians, who brings the light, and who reveals the way. He who forgives, and who lays down his life for those who both dismiss and accept him. For ultimately, the truly great teacher is the one who heals “every kind of sickness” (Matt 4:23).

“Oh Lord, do not allow for me to take the gift of teaching, if I should indeed possess it, for granted. But rather help me to grow in this most precious of callings and to learn from those who come to me.”

Why go to the trouble of writing?

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).

The title to this post is not in reference to the great literature which can realize marvellous responses in us and in many instances also have a marked effect on our culture; rather the question is directly addressed to spiritual writings. So why go to the trouble of writing?  If it is a case of the author trying to convince his or her readers of a religious truth then the effort is largely doomed from the beginning. Language which is a tool of communication, and itself the subject of many definitions, is more limiting rather than revealing. As a result it is a notoriously difficult instrument to share or to express spiritual beliefs which are in themselves typically opaque. For this reason some religious have chosen either to not speak at all or to communicate their theology largely in ‘negative’ or apophatic terms (i.e. what God is not rather than what God is). We need not be adherents of philosophical schools which argue that meaning cannot be reduced to “ultimate simples” to recognize the traps should we reckon our voice possesses some unique clarity outside of the rest. Yet, even universally recognized spiritual writers would not suggest that religious language can capture the underlying essence of their subject, or the motivating desire of their contemplation. What is crucial, however, is to be clear on what we want to say and to have had some experience with the subject. If we are writing on prayer, for example, to at least have made the effort to pray. It is also helpful to remember that often enough it is how we practice our religion which determines our spirituality.

A great poet might ask of their work, “Is this beautiful?” An author on matters of the spirit is not too concerned with technique, he or she will ask, “Is this useful?” Then there are those, like Saint Symeon the New Theologian and the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross whose tongues have been set aflame, who might write both beautiful and useful. So when a writer who is fascinated by the ‘tremendous mystery’ and risks speaking on the great topics of God, Love, Faith, and Death, for instance, what do they hope to have achieved? Let us assume that outside unavoidable clichés the effort is genuine and sincere (and that the goal is not self-aggrandizement), what then is the point? Certainly, there are diverse answers, but hopefully the aim of all who engage in this quest will be distinguished by a common goal. That is, to lay out an honest reflection of the soul’s journey and to have been inspired by the need to partake of this spiritual pilgrimage with travellers on a similar path. If these efforts help to guide others with alike intuitions, revealing to them some of the received ways of entering the kingdom of God which is “within” (Lk 17:21), then it is good the risk was taken to write. This is a prime motivation for one of the most beloved books of the Bible, the Book of Psalms, which appeals not only to the congregation but also to the human will with its continuing encouragement: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival” (Ps 42:4).