What Makes an Educator Outstanding?

The question of what makes an excellent teacher is a significant one, given the depth of research suggesting that the quality of teaching is one of the most, if not the most, significant factors in student learning.  John Hattie identifies the Teacher Credibility as number 4 on his list of the top 10 effects upon learning, and Teacher Student relationships as number 12 (Hattie,2011).  He is not alone in arguing that the quality of a teacher and his or her teaching are one of the (if not the single) most significant factors in student learning.  Figure One illustrates the list of the factors Hattie concluded had the most impact on students’ learning. 

Steve Holden identified the significant role of the teacher in effective learning as a key area of consensus at the 2004 “Making Schools Better” Summit where it was universally agreed that “teachers matter most” (2004: 2) but goes on to highlight the difficulty the conference presenters and participants had in defining exactly “what quality teaching looks like”.  This is a difficulty compounded by the fact that, as Hattie points out, it is not just the teacher but the relationship between the teacher and student that is important to consider. The question to ask it seems is not, is this teacher outstanding?  Rather, the question to ask is: Is this the outstanding educator my child needs to achieve their best?

The same problem faces the wider educational community, although as Stanford Professor, Hanushek pointed out “everyone knows a good teacher when they see one” (2004:3).  However, many of the skills and abilities which the ‘outstanding’ teacher demonstrates in a classroom are the result of their own values about what is important in teaching and were acquired as a result of years of teaching, "gained from a thousand crises met and mastered" (Waller in Abbott-Chapman, 1991: 7).  Abbott-Chapman and Hughes in their attempt to identify the characteristics of 'good teaching' "dispels the single typology as being an accurate description of the good teacher ... the effective teacher can be [any style] and chooses each emphasis appropriately from particular cues in the learning setting" (1991, p. 22).  There are many ways to teach and effective teachers can flexibly employ a range of teaching strategies to meet a range of student needs.

The qualities of good teachers are equally varied.  Over the past century the way such definitions have been created and the qualities or skills privileged by such definitions has shifted. For example Cruickshank and Haefele (2001, p28) describe Ten Types of Good Teachers, ranging from an Ideal Teacher (who satisfies criteria determined by Principles or academics, to Effective Teachers (during the 1960s) to Expert Teachers (during the 1980s and 90s) to Reflective Teachers and those Respected teachers (memorialized in films). Whether the measure is quantifiable, as in student achievement, or qualitative, as in student descriptions, surely the research into students’ perceptions of what makes a teacher outstanding is worth considering? Research conducted in 2008 in the US contrasted teachers’ and students’ views on this question with some results that would resonate with Australian teachers and students. Table 2 below demonstrates the relative similarity in student and teacher responses. Interestingly, teachers also added

  • Make work relevant, and
  • Intelligence

Table two below compares the most highly rated qualities. I wonder if Australian research would offer different insights? Or whether research conduced more recently might factor in other considerations? What are your thoughts? Personally, as both an educator, student, and parent of students, I concur with Table 2 but would add one additional and vital characteristic: integrity. 

At a time when adult role models in social media and politics who display integrity are, arguably few, and when the capacity, ease and reward for dishonesty have, again arguably, never been greater, I agree with Dichtl (2003) who argues: However great may be the forces influencing students to lie or cheat, educators, at all levels and in all settings, must push back by holding students accountable and by teaching about integrity”(p.357). As with any other value or skill a teacher can teach, integrity is, I believe, best taught by modelling the behaviour. Just as both teachers and students rated fairness highly in the 2008 research, and Hattie highlighted teacher credibility in his research (2011), I believe the behaviours which exemplify integrity are the hallmark of the outstanding teacher. All teaching relationships require trust and without honesty, reliability and honour, such relationships are impossible. What are your thoughts? 

Figure 1:Top 15 Factors influencing Student Achievement by Effect Size ES (Hattie, 2011)

By Sue Burvill-Shaw


Abbott-Chapman, Joan & Hughes, Phillip, (October 1991) “What Makes a good Teacher?”  Paper Presented to the 21st ATEA National Conference, Melbourne.

Cruickshank, D. R., & Haefele, D. (2001). Good teachers, plural. Educational Leadership, 58(5), pp. 26-30.

Dichtl, J. (2003). Teaching Integrity. The History Teacher, 36(3), 367-373. doi:10.2307/1555693

Hattie, J (2011) Visible Learning for teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, New York: Routledge

Thompson, G. L. Warren, S. R. Foy, T & Dickerson, C. (2008) What Makes a Teacher Outstanding?: A Contrast of Teachers' and African American High School Students' Perspectives, Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research, 4, pp.122-134.

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