The underrated teacher qualities

There are certain traits that good teachers have that you never seem to see on a lesson observation form. They’re not set as a PRP target. You won’t get a CPD inset session on them.

These are the underrated teacher qualities.


Turning up day in, day out. Turning up year in, year out. Getting that thing done for Mrs W that you said you’d get done, even when Mrs W is too sheepish to remind you to do it. Kids knowing what they’ll get when they show up to your door. A calm sense of self assurance. A sense that if you stick with me, I’ll teach you what you need to be wildly successful. A reliable pair of hands trumps jazz hands every time.

Subject nerdery.

Yes, we see subject knowledge on every ticklist out there, but it tends to be ticked off thoughtlessly unless there’s a reason for alarm bells. By subject nerdery, though, I mean being unabashedly in love with the nitty gritty of your subject. Pursuing that love through day-to-day habits. Listening to history podcasts while you iron. Opening your department meetings with a maths problem to solve. Listening to French talk radio while you get ready in the mornings. As well as improving your subject knowledge, the fact you’re dedicating time to learning more about your subject shows the children you genuinely value it as an academic pursuit.

Liking kids.

Wanting to spend time with your charges. Your pupils genuinely bringing you some joy. Yeah, you can fake it, and Lord knows you need to fake it sometimes. But faking it is exhausting. It’s hard for teaching to be your career forever if the faking it is constant. It’s also important for teachers to like kids when they’re their best. I always raise an eyebrow when I hear “oh, I just love the naughty kids” or similar. It’s toxic if pupils get any sense that negative behaviour, which will ultimately hold them back in life, gets them more affection or attention from teachers. Love the quiet kids. Love the beige kids. Love the kids that slog it out day-in-day-out without remarkable results either way.

Explaining clearly. 

Get a reputation for explaining complex things so they seem simple, and you’ll win the respect of all but the toughest kids. No gimmicks required. Explanations are chronically neglected in ITT and CPD. One picks up tidbits from colleagues over time, one might stumble across techniques like economy of language, but it’s too rare, too unsystematic, too arbitrary. I suspect we’d need to worry less about the CPD biggies of AfL, differentiation, and engagement strategies, if we just spent a little more energy on strengthening our explanations so more children understood more of what was going on in the first place.

This isn’t novel or new. Ask people about their favourite teacher from their own school days and I suspect they’d embody many of these traits. How sad that gimmicks, vested interests, bad research, dodgy CPD, managerialism, and observation culture has made use lose sight of these simple truths.

12 thoughts on “The underrated teacher qualities

  1. Basia Korzeniowska

    Hi Bodil. I read your blog with interest. I have been teaching for almost 37 years now and am as passionate now as at the beginning. And much less arrogant and more willing to learn. You are so right. One of my best moments was being contacted recently by a student whom I’d moved out of my class for bad behaviour about twenty years ago who wrote me an amazing letter of apology and then 10000 words of beautifully written autobiography. Sometimes the rewards aren’t immediate. But they are there. Well done for writing about it so succinctly

    1. Bodil Post author

      WOW. Reading your comment sent shivers down my spine. How absolutely amazing to receive a letter like that. Means infinitely more than an “outstanding” lesson observation.

    1. Bodil Post author

      To me economy of language is just good teaching. It helps every pupil. So much stuff that’s just good practice could be called differentiation.

  2. Mr. Chase

    You’re shooting straight with this blog post. People get all caught up in education trends that shift with every wind. But the things that make teachers great are really simple and timeless. You’ve hit on the big ones, I think!
    Wonderful post.
    -John (math teacher)

    1. Mike O'Donovan

      Totally agree with these points! Sharing explanations for topics should be on the agenda for every maths department meeting. For such a complex subject an alarmingly small (read: zero) amount of time was spent on this during my own (Teach First) training. In my department the idea of critiquing each others’ explanations was initially welcomed but soon fell off the agenda before it had a chance to influence practice, so we’re back to picking up snippets of experience during informal chats. It always surprises me how quickly people judge the explanations of PGCE students yet we don’t model explanations or have consistency of explanations in our own practice. How great would it be to have one approach and explanation to balancing equations or even something simple like finding the area of a triangle. I’m certain (without any evidence to back myself up) a consistency of language would improve pupil understanding and smooth the transition between teachers over time.

  3. dodiscimus

    Great post – getting the simple things right is often both hardest, and most important!
    I have to take a little bit of exception to your comment about ITT, though. Our university-led trainee teachers spend 120 days training in school and about 50 days training in university; of those 50, at least 35 are directly about subject knowledge, delivered by subject-specialists, trying to improve explanations, and the ability of trainees to communicate their subject to their students. I don’t really do much else in my university teaching.
    Best wishes

  4. Anthony Radice

    I once did a year of project management, and I will always remember what one of the senior project managers said about me. He was a rather terse Yorkshireman, and he commented that “When you said you were going to do something, you did it”.

    Simple. It didn’t fit into the corporate competency framework of course!

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  6. julietgreen

    Great post and thank you. I imagine lots of teachers, like myself, wish to leave the profession because what we bring is not promoted as valuable, nor accounted for in any type of appraisal. We’re presented with the notion that some ‘teach like a champion’. We see ‘super teachers’ and ‘celebrity teachers’. We are told about the ‘teaching awards’ and wonder who these people are. What did we want from our own teacher? Kindness but a solid set of boundaries so that we could get on without disruption from our peers or from our own temptation to much about; great subject knowledge so that discussions could really lead somewhere (and not just to google); consistency – being there when everything else was in turmoil around us; persistence – don’t stop nagging us about what matters.

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