Good Teaching / Good Teachers

By Calvin Fraser
October 4, 2012

I see the term “21st Century teaching and learning” so frequently that I am disturbed by the inference that to be good things must be new and different. This term is especially used by people who wish to suggest that there is some new magic in modern technology that creates a new “good teaching.” 


Good teaching continues to be centered on the teacher-student relationship. The ability for teachers to deliver the qualities associated with good teaching may be helped by new technology, but the qualities themselves are not new. I recently read a list of eight alleged qualities (called “habits”) essential for the 21st Century teacher. There is nothing wrong with the list; but there is nothing new about it either. It is refreshing to see that the qualities that made teachers succeed in 1972 when I entered teaching, are still the core of good teaching. The list below is taken from elsewhere[1]; the comments on each of the qualities are mine.

1. Adapting:

The teacher must cover the curriculum; get students ready for the test; deal with disruptions and be responsive to student needs. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems and no plan ever flows exactly as written. Technology gives us new tools, new sources and new ways to learn from others.

2. Being visionary:

The teacher must have a sense of what is new in many fields and be able to manipulate both their own ideas and ideas of others that are of interest, into integrated learning throughout many areas of study.  Technology gives us more opportunities to see what is happening elsewhere and widens scope of the possible.

3. Collaborating:

A teacher must be able to share ideas with others and catch interests of students in new and inventive ways. “Guide on the side, mentor, coach, co-operative learner...,” call it what you will, good teaching and learning happens when we (a flexible group) pull together to make it real. Technology gives us new social media tools and unlimited “search and connect” capabilities.

4. Taking risks:

Teachers have to be willing to try new ideas, new approaches, and to give control of their learning to students. Teachers who allow students to work independently or in groups as appropriate to the learning challenges identified, have always found rewards that more than offset the risk because the learning becomes personal, real and engaging for the students. Technology expands what teachers and students can do.

5. Learning:

Nobody learns like the teacher. Even when I started teaching 40 years ago our adage was, “Teachers teach students, not subjects.” That was recognition that we had to learn first about our students and then work hard to meet their learning needs while achieving prescribed goals. Good teachers have always taken a lesson plan, either their own from the past or someone else’s and adapted it to the teaching and learning needs of the students. The centre of learning is in student needs, not the teacher, not the curriculum, not the test. Technology expands what can be learned and brings into question focussing on content learning.

6. Communicating:

Teaching is communication – oral, written, visual, concrete, abstract – whatever. Teachers communicate about learning, about teaching, about student needs, about up-to-date research, about ideas of their own and ideas from elsewhere. Communication is teacher-teacher, teacher-student, student-student, student-others, independent, controlled and uncontrolled. Technology expands our ability to communicate and our ability to track and manage that communication.

7. Modelling behaviour:

Teachers are models for learning and life. Teachers have accepted for many years that there is a 24-hour expectation for appropriate behaviour that comes with being a teacher; an expectation consistent with the higher level of responsibility and respect society places on teachers by placing children in their care. Teachers transfer values and the mores of society through their relationships with students. Reflective practice (taught in teacher education institutions since the 1970s) and teacher professional development opportunities help teachers consider their own behaviour and the expectations of society. Technology can expose students to more models, but by itself technology is amoral – it in fact can also open both immoral and incorrect content changing the role of the teacher.

8. Leading:

Teachers are leaders both in schools and in their communities. Leadership with students allows them to be models, risk-takers and visionary collaborators in learning. Teachers’ abilities to be goal-focussed, to organize, to communicate and to build relationships make them a core part of many activities outside their classrooms. Technology is a tool for leaders largely through the skills discussed above.

Recently we see in the education reform movement, a realization that education quality is dependent on the quality of the teacher. As part of that revelation many reformers are using lists, qualities and traits such as the one above as “new” thoughts about teaching. Often, the only new part is that they just discovered them and are now trying to use them as a way to reshape education to their own image. Part of their argument is in the denial of the pre-existence of these ideas.

New technology has tremendous value in the hands of a good teacher. Indeed, lists such as the one above, while originally offered largely to show how wonderful the new technology is, truly show how the human component of good teaching remains constant.

[1] Churches, Andrew (2012). “Eight habits of highly effective 21st century teachers” as found online Feb. 9, 2012 at

Calvin Fraser is Secretary General of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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