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5 Key (Learnable!) Teacher Traits - Part 1


The Idea

Each March NFL brass descend upon Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. This is an annual event where all 32 NFL teams bring a handful of coaches and scouts to assess every inch of a couple hundred 22-24 year-olds. It’s a test of speed (40-yard dash and shuttle run), strength (bench press), agility (3-cone drill), and athleticism (vertical hump and broad jump), in addition to intelligence (Wonderlic test) and soft skills (team and media interviews).

Drop someone Roman empire into this present day event, and they might think this exhibition featuring chiseled men in spandex is preparation for “America’s Next Top Gladiator”. The purpose of this event is to identify the individuals who possess traits one’s team values from each position in the game of football. It got me thinking about the traits that make a great teacher.

I’ve identified five learnable traits that I believe make a great teacher. I bold and underline “learnable” because, like a good athlete, I believe God-given ability can only take one so far in any profession. I believe each of the traits I’ll describe are coachable and learnable; whereas, a trait like “charisma” is primarily an innate ability. With each trait, I’ll provide two examples of teachers who displayed these traits at an expert level in my life while I was a student in Bremen Public Schools, and a teacher and administrator at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School (Indy Met).

The Structure of Each Trait Description

Each trait includes the: 1) definition of the trait; 2) Examples from my life; and 3) a distilled set of "key components" for each trait.

If you're pressed for time, check out the five traits and review the "key components" for each trait to gain a general understanding of the underlying teacher behaviors that lead to mastery of the trait. The "examples from my life" provide deeper context to how I chose the "key components"


Trait 1: Belief

Be • lief – Trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something.

Examples from My Life

A great teacher believes each of one’s students can accomplish something more than the student does. As a student, I felt this belief from Senora Keck. As you might have guessed, Mrs. Keck was a high school Spanish teacher. Research proves her task was a difficult one. The easiest time for language acquisition is when one is young and still learning one’s primary language. Each day, Senora Keck brought an energy and authenticity to her teaching that made me believe that I could learn Spanish, and so could my classmates. I remember her saying, “Senior Molinero, (insert Spanish phrase for “You can do it!”). Then, she would point to her own ears and say “Listen” or “Escucha”, if I remember correctly. Muchas gracias for your belief in me, Senora Keck!

At Indy Met, I saw this trait manifested through Ms. Andrea (Priest) Homoya. Ms. Andrea had the almost impossible task of getting every student an internship that would take them out of our building for up to two full days a week! This was so difficult for two primary reasons: 1) trying to convince businesses to supervise and teach a 15- or 16-year old twice a week for close to eight hours and 2) coaching that same 15- or 16-year old about how to carry themselves as a professional so the business will want them to keep coming back. Each internship day, Andrea brought an energy that made the students believe it was their day to find an internship doing something for which they were passionate. She’d proclaim, “It’s internship day! Teamwork makes the dreamwork! Let’s get you out of here (out into an internship).” Sometimes, students would look at her like she had a third eye. Her passion for this aspect of our school, and belief that each student, regardless of their background, grades, and behavior at school, could find and keep a meaningful internship, was contagious.

Key Components of This Trait

  1. Positive energy (optimism) about one’s content and daily objectives.

  2. Authenticity in one’s message of what’s possible.

  3. Verbal praise for student growth (even if mastery hasn’t yet occurred).

  4. Persistence in communicating learning one’s content is possible!

  5. Passion in one’s content and the usefulness of the content in each student’s life.

Trait 2: Communication

Com • mu • ni • ca • tion – the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.

Examples from My Life

I’ve never more clearly understood what I was supposed to do in a class than I did in Ms. Patty Davis’ high school physical education class. The first day of class, Ms. Davis shared her expectations and we practiced them multiple times that day, and each day after that, for the first few weeks. If one forgot a procedure, she also had the systems and procedures on a plywood board in the same location of the gym every single day. The system was fool proof. By the third week of the class, I’m confident the class could have been teacher less and run as she expected. Although, it did help that Ms. Davis had a drill sergeant like demeanor (haha). That said, if one didn’t fair well in her class, it fell squarely on one’s own shoulders. Her physical education class required zero natural athletic ability. Only the ability to follow explicitly clear directions, give maximum effort, and show growth (which everyone who gave maximum effort did).

Like the systems and procedures Ms. Davis set up, communicated, and practiced, Mr. Adam Jones’ 10th grade English possessed many of the same attributes. Mr. Jones had a much different disposition and teaching style compared to Ms. Davis, however. The power in Mr. Jone’s communication came from his ability to get quiet (rather than louder) and deliver a crystal clear message using the fewest number of words possible. His communication style made it almost impossible for a student to get lost in the objective he was teaching, or the independent task he was communicating directions about to release students to complete. Much like Ms. Davis, if a student did not understand the directions after the verbal explanation, they could quickly look at the agenda and/or written directions that were just as clear as what Mr. Jones shared orally.

Key Components of This Trait

  1. Articulation of thoughts, actions, and the purpose of both to drive one’s students to a desired outcome.

  2. Creation, communication, and mastery of daily student routines and behaviors.

  3. Word precision.

  4. Multiple forms of delivering content and expectations to reach all students.


Trait 3: Relational

Re • la • tion • al – of or relating to kinship.

Examples from My Life

I had a difficult time identifying the right word for this trait. Transparently, I’m not sure I found the right one in “relational”, but I like how the definition uses “kinship”. When I think of kinship, I think of “an affinity” to something, it’s a feeling of belonging to something, similar to family. Mr. Brian Lane developed expert relational skills. During my high school years, Mr. Lane become one of the most trusted adults in my life, and in the lives of many of his students. He did this through getting to know each of his students by asking questions and being present in each student’s answer. He knew what made each of his student’s “tick”. Being a teacher wasn’t an 8 to 3:30 job for Mr. Lane. In addition to being the middle and high school choir director, at one point in time he coached football, basketball, golf, and track, was the sponsor for the high school Student Council. He likely volunteered his time in many other ways and I just don’t know. He also learned the skill of reading people and uncovering what was on one’s mind if he thought “something was up”. To sum it up, Mr. Lane simply cared deeply about each of his students, and students allowed him in because of this, and his ability to build authentic relationships with all different types of people.

Identifying one example of this trait from my time at Indy Met was extremely difficult, because relationships were the foundation of everything at our school. Before I speak specifically to one person, I’ll shout out some folks who are just as deserving of being recognized for their display of this trait – Ms. Sharon Beatty, Ms. Kimberly Massoud, Mr. Jason Smith, Ms. Shelly Bright, Mr. Jon Himes, Mr. Tom Loughead, and so many others. Much like Mr. Lane, Mr. Yuri Smith was an expert at making each student feel like they were his most important student. He did this through using each student’s name. Praising them for working hard and a job well done. Connecting more deeply to the student through a connection to the student and someone else Yuri knew in the student’s family or community. Yuri built credibility with each student quickly and, because of this credibility and trust, was able to get his students to buy into the content he delivered, which was Read 180 a reading intervention program built to help students improve literacy.

Key Components of This Trait

  1. Asking purposeful questions to learn what makes a student “tick”.

  2. Treating one’s job as more than a way to make a living – i.e. interacting with students outside of the classroom during normal school hours.

  3. Read people and delicately probe to understand what is causing a certain behavior.

  4. Use a student’s name.

  5. Use connections to the student’s community to build credibility.

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