What makes a great teacher

A great teacher can make all the difference to your child’s enjoyment and fulfilment of potential at school, but what makes a good teacher great? And is teaching something that anyone who likes kids can do?

larger than life

In the movie Dead Poets Society, teacher John Keating goes against orthodox education methods. He urges his uptight prep-school students to climb onto their desks to see the world from a different perspective.

In Star Wars, Yoda trains Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi by imparting a universal truth: “There is no try. Only do, or do not.”

good teachers

What qualities does a teacher need to be good at their job? Depending on our own school experience, as well as on the challenges facing us as parents, we may decide a good teacher is somebody who:

  • gets learning results
  • recognises potential in students
  • identifies possible learning issues (pencil grip, fine or ultra-fine motor skill underdevelopment, dyslexia, vision problems)
  • identifies social problems (bullying, alienation)
  • maintains class discipline
  • drives strong students to achieve
  • can be resourceful and patient with slower students
  • is aware of each student’s learning style needs, such as the need for details or the need for the big picture
  • teaches in a multi-sensory way
  • has personal integrity
  • is likeable, interesting and fun

The list goes on and on. Every child, every parent and every school principal is bound to have an opinion on what makes a good teacher. Sometimes, the insights may contradict one another: one set of parents judging a teacher good if she includes the whole family in their children’s learning, while another set may prefer the hands-off approach. It seems a good teacher should also be flexible and sensitive to the parents’ needs.

but wait, there’s more!

A market researcher asked a group of conference goers what makes a successful morning tea break. They listed soft music, free internet access, freshly brewed coffee, thin china cups, biscuits, savoury snacks, a wide selection of teabags … some even expressed a desire for loose-leaf tea. The researcher then asked the same question of the catering staff. Do you know what they listed? Hot water and clean cups.

That’s the difference between the frills and the basics. In the same way, many teachers satisfy the basic requirements for being good teachers. Nevertheless, some go the extra mile and become …

great teachers

Great teachers are dedicated to their job and committed to their students’ individual success. They respect their class and automatically receive respect in return. Positive and energetic, they guide, nurture and inspire their pupils. While their conduct is adult and responsible, they remember what it’s like to be a child and are able to communicate on the child’s level.

Enthusiastic, with a contagious thirst for learning, great teachers love their job. They teach with heart and from the heart, beyond the textbook, passing on universal wisdom and life insights.

primary, intermediate, college

Younger children like a teacher who makes them feel secure, somebody who will hug them if they’re having a bad day and listen patiently to the playground chat about the butterfly that sat on Jake’s lunchbox.

By years 5 to 8, students prefer a teacher who is “firm, but fair”. Intermediate school, with its transitional role, needs considerate teachers who can facilitate the shift from the relaxed primary school environment to the sometimes impersonal college.

College students enjoy being educated by someone with a passion for their subject, someone who can ignite their interest and motivate them to perform. College teachers should be experts in their subject, able to pass on that knowledge to their students. The teenage years are fraught with uncertainty and doubt, so an approachable teacher who can reach the pupils and talk about their problems in an accessible way is ideal for
this age group.

a great teacher – true story

The first thing you notice about the Room 7 teacher is the infectious smile of someone who’s truly glad to be in the classroom. You also notice how effortlessly she controls the children with positive feedback: “I love how Isabelle is sitting up straight on the mat.” The kids adore her. She’s definitely “cool”, “in”, or whatever kids say nowadays to signal approval.

When one of her pupils returns to school after a period of absence, she will proactively work with the child on a one-to-one basis to ensure they catch up on the material they’ve missed.

She doesn’t do glamorous things like coach the school’s winning chess team. It’s the little things she does throughout the day – every day – that add up to something truly remarkable.

signs that your child has a great teacher

  • Homework is a breeze.
  • Your child says things like: “I love learning” and “I can’t wait for the holidays to be over.”
  • Their attitude changes from “Maths is hard” to “I am learning to be good at Maths” to “I am good at Maths.”
  • The school report brings no surprises and it reads as though the teacher really knows your child, both in terms of learning and favourite free time activities.

parents as life teachers

Increasingly, schools are expected to deliver not only education outcomes, but also social outcomes such as moral values, manners, nutritional acumen, budgeting skills and responsible sexual behaviour.

In the movie world, John Keating taught his students to seize the day, to think for themselves and to stand up for what they believe is right. Yoda taught humility and self-confidence.

In the real world, away from prep schools and the fictional planet Dagobah, we have to ask: where does the role of a teacher end and the role of a parent begin?

the job


  • being a teacher is meaningful, important and fulfilling
  • long holidays
  • option of working part-time as a relief teacher


  • hard, noisy work
  • lots of after-school admin
  • not as well-paid as the corporate sector

get the skills you need

If you like the idea of working with children:

  • work out whether you want to be a primary, secondary or an early childhood teacher
  • check what qualifications you’ll need
  • select the university
  • pass the selection process involving personal references, a literacy and numeracy assessment and an interview by the New Zealand Teachers Council/Te Pouherenga Kaiako o Aotearoa
  • complete your training (this will involve sessions in a real classroom)

To become a primary school teacher, you need to have one of the following:

  • a three-year Diploma of Teaching, or
  • a three-year Bachelor of Education (Teaching) degree, or
  • a Bachelor’s degree and a one-year graduate Diploma of Teaching.

In addition, to become a secondary school teacher, you will usually need a tertiary qualification.

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