What Makes a Really Great Teacher?

What Makes a Really Great Teacher?
Anna Harrison: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: 1 week


Anna Tuthill Harrison was one of the best educated of the early First Ladies, having grown up on Long Island and attended both The Clinton Academy in East Hampton and the Boarding School of Isabella Marshall Graham. Indeed, she was the first First Lady to receive a formal education. This education was helpful to her over all of her long life (she lived to be 88 years old), both because it prepared her to be aware of and interested in all kinds of people and events and because it enabled her to be a successful teacher for her own ten children.  Spending much of her life in territorial “wilderness” posts with her husband, she was still able to give her own children the benefit of her own education.


Students who participate in this lesson will conduct individual and group research to determine what some of the most important characteristics of a good teacher are.  They have the option, at the conclusion of their research, to organize and implement a “Teacher of the Year” recognition ceremony in their own school. 

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to novels about or memoirs of teachers; paper and pencils (or recording devices) for interviews; PowerPoint or other presentation software and computer projection equipment (optional). 


1.  To introduce the lesson, engage students in a discussion about what they think are the most important characteristics of a great teacher.  Keep track of their ideas on a chalkboard or a flip chart.
2.  Then, divide the class into several groups, assigning each group the task of researching conceptions of good teaching, using the websites listed below.  One or two groups can read the descriptions of National Teacher of the Year award winners from 1980 to 2006 as they are listed on the 1952-2006 website below.  Other groups can research each of the three additional sites listed.
3.  Regardless of the source of information, students should extract from their reading a set of characteristics that seem to be associated with great teachers.  When this part of the lesson is completed, bring the class back together to discuss their findings.
4.  Armed with these results, students should individually interview at least five people—parents, grandparents, neighbors, other students (of different ages)—asking, “What do you think makes a great teacher?”  Students should then return to their small groups, and collate their interview data, comparing it with their earlier research findings. 
5.  Several possibilities present themselves as culminating activities:

  • Student groups can prepare presentations of their findings, ending with a whole class discussion
  • Students can present their findings individually in essay form
  • Students can sift through all the data and create posters that illustrate their findings, to be mounted in the school halls. 

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by organizing and implementing a “Teacher of the Year” selection process and recognition ceremony in the students’ local high school.

Sources & Resources:


Fried, Robert L. The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
Keizer, Garret. No Place But Here: A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community.  New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
McCourt, Frank.  Teacher Man: A Memoir. New York: Scribner, 2006.
Rose, Mike.  Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underclass. New York: The Free Press, 1989.
Whitacre, Todd.  What Great Teachers Do Differently: Fourteen Things That Matter Most.  Larchmont, NV: Eye on Education, Inc., 2003. 
Wood, George H.  Schools That Work: America’s Most Innovative Public Education Programs. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.


Qualities of Great Teachers

10 Traits of a Great Teacher

National Teacher of the Year Program

National Teacher of the Year, 2014


Credits: This lesson was Developed by Marion Maxfield, Kent State University.