Who remembers their favorite test from school? You know, the one that inspired you to become who you are now, or saved you from the wrong part of yourself? Who remembers the test that made you want to come out of your shell? Which test gave you the courage to try new things and challenge yourself? For me, it was the 1966 Regents Comprehensive Examination in Social Studies.

Ok, only kidding. We all know that it is teachers who inspire and challenge us to be our best. It isn’t testing, or much of what is now being called teaching. We also know which teachers did that. We might remember some incidents in their classes, or things they said or wrote to us. Do we remember the everyday things? The attitude they brought to the room? Their techniques?

When I see former students (from the Bronx to Scarsdale), they don’t tell me about the Goals or Aim or Motivation from October 23rd, 2002. They will tell me about my energy, my excitement, my caring, and my prodding them to do their best, not to settle for mediocrity. They tell me about a particular project that inspired or challenged them to think critically, or do things they never thought they could. They even remember what they learned while doing those things. What they don’t know is how all of that was planned.

            “Great teaching is an art.” Of course, there are great techniques that have been used by great teachers, but it isn’t the technique that makes the teacher great. It is what the great teacher brings to the technique. I have watched these techniques used perfectly in perfectly horrible lessons and marginally well in absolutely magnificent lessons, because of who the teacher is as much as what the teacher does. This is true, whatever the teacher’s age or experience level. Teaching is as much talent as it is skill.

Great teachers plan objectives, then matching assessments and activities. What is also important is the quality of the activities and the probing, challenging, written, and oral questions accompanying those activities. It is all one big package. How does that lesson or activity, as simple or complex as it may be, get your kids to learn and understand those objectives and succeed on the assessments?

So, what is a good teacher? The sum of all those things. Each and every day a good teacher is a motivator, planner, questioner, assessor, mother or father, even entertainer. Plan accordingly. It is the key. Your kids rely on that. But don’t make it look too planned.

            So many so-called educational reformers believe that given their version of the right tools, techniques, and tests, any top college student can become a successful teacher.

     I learned from several esteemed mentors that the best teachers never stopped learning and listening. How else can we find out what makes good teaching, but by listening to people from both sides of the desk? In researching this book, I reached out to many people and asked these simple questions:

As a student:

  1. What made your best teachers your best teachers? Consider personal characteristics, techniques, activities, and relationships with students. What made your worst teachers your worst teachers? Consider personal characteristics, techniques, activities, and relationships with students.
  2. From which teachers did you learn the most? Why? From which teachers did you learn the least? Why? (You don’t have to name names.)
  3. Please describe any particularly positive or negative classroom moments or activities that stand out. What made them so memorable?

     I received a wide variety of answers from friends, family, colleagues, and former students. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I have been saying for years to anyone who will listen that all you have to do to improve education is to ask people what made their best teachers best, then train teachers to do as many of those replicable things as possible. Two things cannot be replicated, though: personality and natural talent. Although personality and natural talent cannot be learned, teachers certainly can be taught to use what works best for them as individuals.

       Hard as it was, I selected what I thought were the clearest messages and tried to list them by six essential categories: Challenge, Engagement, Interaction, Personality, Personal Touch, and Planning. These are listed in alphabetical order, because they are equally important.


  • The best teachers build a relationship with their students by challenging them.
  • The best teacher puts you in a position to succeed.
  • They actually cared about my success and did not allow for the possibility of failure by setting high expectations. This made a lifelong impact on my life.
  • The best teachers paced the class at a level that worked for everyone. In hindsight, it seems magical, apparent more when absent. I’m aware of teachers who kept everyone challenged, but more aware of teachers where I felt like the material was moving too slowly or too quickly for me to handle. In the latter case, the result (on my part) was boredom or frustration–and in both cases, a loss of interest in the topic. But in the former case, the result was challenge, pride in my work, and a feeling of accomplishment.
  • The best teachers are those that lead the students to water but force them to get to the end on their own.
  • The ones that I learned the most were the ones who challenged me, who wouldn’t let me just take the easy route, who were patient yet firm, who didn’t cosign my BS and let me get away with mediocrity.


  • The best teachers came in prepared and eager to reach out. You felt that they loved what they were doing. I learned most from the ones who were able to engage the classroom.
  • Kids know if you want to be there.
  • The best classroom is one where students can think, question, and make those personal and meaningful connections.
  • They used clear, vivid language–some of their phrases I remember over forty years later. They loved engaging in debate with their students.
  • My best teachers were always engaging, relying on interactive teaching methods to best gain the interest of the students.
  • One significant quality that I admire was that they saw teaching as an adventure, constantly questioning, having fun doing it, and that it had real- life relevance.
  • My best teachers were the teachers who were open and willing to reach their students on the student level.  They were the teachers who best understood how we, as students, were still growing and learning–and making mistakes. They were the teachers who made an effort to appreciate us as individuals and recognize us for our own talents and interests. 


  • A great lesson is one in which there is student participation and connection between student and teacher.
  • They use active interaction with students.
  • They did not “lecture” at us–but spoke with us–used real-life examples, allowed us to speak freely, even if we disagreed. They fostered participation and real discourse.
  • A lesson is great when there is enough opportunity for authentic interaction between students, teachers, and other students.
  • Interactive teaching where students can chime in with their questions and thoughts, while maintaining a sense of direction and achieving teaching goals.
  • I learned a lot from teachers who let us into their world and their interests–it made them more relatable. I learned the least from the teachers I did not have more than a classroom relationship with.  I now realize that the most significant learning experiences I had in high school were with the teachers that I connected with.


  • The best teachers were any teachers who seemed authentic, who seemed to really walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
  • My best teachers were teachers that gave me knowledge, not only by textbook, but also with humor. They create activities that apply knowledge.
  • They have a good sense of humor. They make learning fun.
  • The best teachers have a big personality. You can see that they are excited by what they do!
  • I enjoyed those teachers who clearly enjoyed teaching, i.e., they themselves weren’t bored with what they were doing, but rather projected a love for their subject–and their subjects [students].
  • The personal characteristic of my best teachers was that they loved their job, and it was evident in their teaching style. They love to see the student “get it.”
  • It seems that the best atmospheres were those where the teacher had both a personal relationship with students and (somewhat contradictory) complete control of the classroom.
  • My best teachers were enthusiastic about their subjects–they cared deeply, and made us want to care also.
  • They knew how to play with and poke fun at the students, to keep the atmosphere light and easy.
  • Teachers who like students are generally successful.
  • Many of my best teachers possessed integrity, humor, and consistency.

The Personal Touch:

  • Kids pick up on attitudes and can usually cut through the facade. When kids feel genuinely cared about by a teacher, they think the teacher is a good teacher.
  • The best teacher, whether teaching science, math, or football is the one who can bring out the best in me, and take my worst, and show me how to make it better. The best teacher finds qualities in the not-so gifted student that allows that student to see that he, too, can succeed. The great teachers showed an interest in us, but did not overdo it by trying to be “our friends.” The great teachers used their personal life experience to help us grow and mature.
  • The best teachers gave attention, not just to the subject, but also to the real academic needs of me, as a student, as a growing person. The best allowed me to express myself creatively without judgment, and enforce critical-thinking skills. They knew how to make demands to elevate my skills, abilities, and responsibilities as a student. They were personal, without losing sight of their role as teachers, mentors, and guiders of the academic spirit. They would build and not tear down. They understood the journey a young person needed to take to get to the bridge in preparation for the next phase of development…they inspired this by their actions.
  • Clearly, they were experts in their chosen field and were enthusiastic about the content, which translated many times to the students also being enthusiastic about the content.


  • They use innovative teaching methods.
  • They keep the kids interested. A great lesson is one where the class is working along with the teacher.
  • A great lesson plan connects planning, questioning, and activities to doing, action, and reflection.
  • A lesson is great when it is well planned. One has to consider all the ways children learn. Teachers have to know their students, and provide them all opportunities.
  • A great lesson is one that is well planned but is flexible enough to leave room for the “teachable” moment or for situations that would make a change of direction needed.
  • I think a variety of activities are needed, both to keep the interest of the students and to find ways of reaching all different kinds of learners.
  • Higher-level questions on all grade levels are important, and I never saw enough of these used by student teachers.
  • Get to know your students’ learning styles and what seems to hold their interest and challenge them. This valuable information will help with how to plan your lessons, and the types of questioning and activities you use. The types of learners in your class will dictate the lessons you plan. I guess you would call this customizing your lessons to your particular students.
  • All types of lessons can work, but no one technique should be used always.

Finally, one note on school atmosphere:

  • The best atmospheres are supportive and self-directing and that develop a sense of professionalism and camaraderie among colleagues.

That last comment is significant. Schools and districts must create those types of atmospheres to allow teachers to be their best. Am I too Pollyannaish to think that is not that hard to do? No.

Teaching is learning how to be that person. Teachers, young and old, new or experienced, can become better at what they do by listening to and observing the best teachers do those things well. If they are lucky enough to be in a supportive and self-directing school atmosphere that develops a sense of professionalism and camaraderie among colleagues, they will become among the best in their profession.