memory and learning

What Makes A Great Teacher?

A Great Teacher

There are many people who teach, but perhaps few who are truly great teachers. This is actually quite easy to demonstrate. If we look back at all the teachers we have had during our life, from elementary school to 12th grade, and beyond, most likely we cannot remember the names of the vast majority of them. BUT, there are probably a few we can vividly recall. These were the truly great teachers who impressed us so much; they didn’t just teach our minds, they touched our souls. We can remember not only their names, but what they looked like, and how they taught, even if it was 40 years ago! We remember them because they inspired us. We remember them because they were truly great teachers. 🙂

I would like to propose that there are certain tangible factors, and perhaps a few intangible factors, that make a teacher great. I believe these factors are knowledge, clear and linear presentation, passion, entertainment, the ability to apply, and caring. I am not sure that every great teacher must possess every one of these factors, or even possess them to an equal degree, but I believe these are among the fundamental traits that make a teacher great and allow them to touch our lives forever.

Have Knowledge

Knowledge is the most obvious skill that a teacher must possess. Clearly to be able to teach a subject, the teacher must know the content that is being taught. They must have a sense of command of the facts of the subject. I am almost tempted to say no more and leave this here, but I believe that there is more to knowledge than just knowing the facts. There is an understanding that involves seeing how these facts come together to form the bigger picture. And when the bigger picture is taught, the student can better see the relationship between any one fact being taught, and all the other facts being presented. It is like a jigsaw puzzle coming together. It is the teaching of this big picture that makes the facts make sense. That allows the student to more easily learn and understand the subject being taught.

There is an old saying: “Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you just told them.” I look at this as stating the big picture, giving the details that comprise the big picture, and then stepping back to point out the big picture again.

Be Clear and Linear in your Presentation

I believe that teaching a student is like bridging a gap. The gap exists because the teacher knowing the content is on one side of the gap, and the student who does not know the content is on the other side of the gap. The teacher cannot simply spout out the information into the void of the gap because it probably will not reach the student. Instead, the teacher needs to understand where the student is, go to him/her, and then bring that student over to where the teacher is, one step at a time. In this way, the teacher bridges the gap.

If you are a teacher, this requires putting yourself in the mindset of the student who likely knows little or nothing of the subject, and start building the bridge from where they are, all the way to where you are. A great instructor of mine once said, referring to how a paper should be written (and we can view a paper that we write as being us teaching in written words): “All papers should assume that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the subject, but is intelligent.”

So, when we teach, we need to start from square zero, and then build the presentation of the facts and ideas from there. This requires laying out the content in a linear fashion, step by step: A, then B, then C, then D, then E, etc., so that the student see the progression of ideas. This helps in two ways. First, the student sees that any one fact or idea, whether it is A or D, is actually quite simple, and therefore not hard to learn. Second, the student starts to see how to think in a stepwise logical fashion. If this is learned, the student learns to critically think and is empowered in time to creatively project that knowledge on their own from E to F, and all the way to Z.

Granted, intelligence might not always be linear and logical. Many geniuses are not able to explain in steps how they brilliantly know what they know. But I submit that aside from our being impressed and inspired by these incredible geniuses, I do not believe that they necessarily make great teachers. Being brilliant and being able to transmit that brilliance to others is not the same thing. I believe that teaching in a logical linear step-by-step order is essential to making any subject matter simple and easy for our students to learn.


Unfortunately, a teacher who possesses a lot of knowledge and can present that knowledge in a clear and linear fashion still might not to a great job of teaching their students to learn. Perhaps to a student who is already in love with the content and is hungry to learn, this teacher will be great. But to many others, the student’s mild to moderate interest might be outweighed by the physical boredom of sitting in an uncomfortable hard chair for hours on end. It often sounds demeaning to say that a teacher must also be an entertainer, but I do not believe that entertaining is demeaning. I honestly believe that most great teachers are also good or great entertainers. A little entertainment might be necessary to make that mildly interested student very interested. Or to keep that very interested student interested even at the three-hour mark in a class. Being entertained piques our interest and our energy, so we are not only motivated to learn, our minds are awake and hungry to hear and learn more. Humor is probably the most common way to entertain, but I am sure that any wit or emotion would function just as well. Coming from the heart can be just as “entertaining” as coming from the mind.

Have Passion

So now we have a teacher who is knowledgeable, presents the subject in a clear and linear way, and is even entertaining; but still, this teacher might not rise in our estimation to be what we would describe as a great teacher. The fatigue to the body of sitting for a prolonged time on a hard chair might lead to fatigue of the mind, and not long after, fatigue of the spirit. As stated before, perhaps to a student who is already in love with the content and is hungry to learn, this teacher will be great. But many students approach a class, perhaps with an interest to learn the subject, but not with a passionate interest. So if the teacher does not instill some passion into the student, the student might become lost, regardless of all the other wonderful traits that the teacher possesses. So assuming that we teach the subject we teach because we love it and have passion for it, we need to show that passion to the students. We need to instill them with that passion. The passion needs to become infectious so that the students are interested to learn, motivated to learn, and are passionate to learn!


Ok. I am a student in a class and I am learning a lot, it is clearly presented, it is fun to be in class because the teacher is entertaining, and the teacher has passion which inspires me; but why am I learning this stuff?! At some point, especially if the student has been learning the subject matter for day after day, week after week, or even month after month, the question will creep into their mind: other than having to pass a test, why am I working so hard to learn all this? This is where the teacher needs to not just teach the subject matter content in a clear, entertaining, and passionate way, but must relate the learning of this content to how it will apply to the student’s life or work after they leave the classroom.


There is an old saying: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I believe that beyond all the knowledge, clarity of presentation, passion, entertainment, and application of the content, for a teacher to truly touch the student’s heart and soul, the student must feel that the teacher cares about the student learning, and beyond that, cares about the student as a person. This creates a relationship between not only the student and the content being presented, but a human relationship between the student and the instructor.

Personal Note:

I have been teaching in the world of manual and movement therapy for more than 30 years now, both core curriculum and continuing education. I consider it to be one of the most rewarding endeavors of my life. I have had the honor and pleasure to have taught on five continents now, and to have had some amazingly wonderful and “great” students through the years, many of whom have become friends. I do not want to assume that I have achieved the status of being a “great teacher” that I have written about in this article, but I do aspire to achieve the attributes described in this article. And I hope that with each succeeding day, week, month, and year, I am gradually becoming a better teacher, and that one day, I will be considered by my students as being a great teacher. A big shout out of thanks to all of my wonderful students, past and present, who inspire me!

(Click here for the blog post article: Thinking Fast Makes You Happier! – Tip for Teachers and Students.)

Did you know that Digital COMT, our video streaming subscription service for manual and movement therapists, has an entire folder on Tips for Teachers and Students? Click here to learn more. 🙂