On Preparation for Teaching: Six Attributes of Great Teachers

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The Art of Teaching: A Conference for Teaching Men


November 9-11 • The Heights School, Potomac, MD

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This week on HeightsCast, we bring to you a lecture from the 2022 Teaching Vocation Conference.  In this lecture, Head of Lower School, Mr. Colin Gleason, offers advice on how to prepare for the teaching profession.  Although the ultimate preparation for teaching is teaching itself, he nevertheless offers us six verbs—actions—that great teachers do well and that aspiring teachers would do well to work on.

  1. A great teacher speaks
    1. Teachers communicate their ideas primarily through words.  In order to do this well, the ability to speak publicly is a sine qua non.   and to draw out from students ideas of their own
    2. Teaching is more than the delivery of information.  A teacher must first win over his students.  Speaking well—holding a student’s attention like a preacher does his congregation or a singer her audience—is necessary to this end.
    3. Concrete suggestion: tell stories.  Even in the maths and sciences, good teaching is animated by good storytelling.  Practice with friends and family.
  2. A great teacher listens
    1. Teaching does not consist in simply signaling what is on a page.  It is a two way street.  A teacher is like an orchestral conductor, who moves between score and sound, adjusting as needed.
    2. A common bad habit of teachers is over-teaching, that is: talking too much.  In order to gauge students’ reception, a teacher must be attentive to them in real time.
    3. Teaching is personal, so the teacher should seek to listen not only to the group as a whole, but also to each student as an individual.
    4. Teaching is, at root, assisting parents.  A great teacher listens, also to parents, who are the primary educators.
    5. Concrete suggestion: find a good mentor.  In order to listen well, we need personal guidance and someone who listens to us.
  3. A great teacher sees
    1. Seeing is paramount to the personal approach.
    2. A crippling bad habit: prejudice–that is, to judge too soon before one sees the actual reality of the student before him.  Judging quickly blinds a teacher.
    3. One of the beauties of the teaching profession is seeing the growth of a student.
    4. Concrete suggestion: we need to be artists, which, in the first place, means seeing.  Teachers mold souls and to do this, they must have the intention of seeing as an artist.  In our daily lives, now, in our families and at work, are we attentive to the people around us?
  4. A great teacher laughs
    1. A teacher ought to enjoy being with his students, to be caught up in the sense of awe and wonder at the student he serves.
    2. Teachers need to have a sense of humor.  Taking oneself too seriously could be a death knell as a teacher.
    3. Although we are grown up, we need not have grown old.
    4. Concrete suggestion: remember the art of play.  A teacher should remember that he is still part boy; his job is a joyful one.
  5. A great teacher studies
    1. A teacher must be continually learning.
    2. Study fuels the teacher, keeping his mind fresh.
    3. A teacher models study for his students; they see his actions and draw lessons therefrom.
    4. Concrete suggestion: read and study, even apart from any degree programs.  What a teacher needs is two-fold: to know his subject well and to love his students even more.
  6. A great teacher explores
    1. Education is an adventure, which means that a teacher should be in the trenches alongside his students.
    2. Teaching comes from the person; it is an overflow of his own sense of adventure.
    3. Adventure does not mean haphazard.  It takes work to be creative.  Spontaneity in the moment is often the fruit of diligent planning before.
    4. Concrete suggestion: exercise prudence in choosing what school you work at. Three aspects to consider in a school:
      1. Cohesive spirit and identity; imagine yourself living that spirit.
      2. Content of the curriculum (especially books taught).
      3. Freedom

There are many mediocre teachers in the world, so if you are going to be a teacher, become a great one.  This, of course, does not mean perfection, but rather continual improvement.  To be a great teacher is not to have made it, but to be continually on the way.  In Mr. Gleason’s words, a teacher is like the guide on a white water rafting expedition.  Indeed, we are all in the same boat and, not only are we learning, we are laughing.

Also on The Forum 

Guidance for Aspiring Teachers with Alvaro de Vicente

Seneca on the Teacher’s Job by Tom Cox

The Teacher as Liberal Artist with Dr. Matthew Mehan and Mr. Tom Longano

Cultivating Friendship in the Classroom by Austin Hatch

Aristotle on the Student’s Job by Tom Cox

Further Reading 

The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet

Only the Lover Sings by Josef Pieper

Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf by Ben Hogan

Colin Gleason

About the guest:

Colin Gleason


Colin Gleason graduated from The Heights in 1999. After graduating from Washington and Lee University with a B.A. in Classics, he returned to his alma mater where he has taught a variety of classes: 3rd Grade Homeroom; Natural History; Chess; Storytelling; and currently, Moral Theology in the Upper School. He served four years as the Director of Admissions before taking on his current position as Head of the Lower School in 2010, overseeing his beloved Valley where he began as a student. Colin has also served as the Head Varsity Soccer Coach since 2010, and has been named Coach of the Year by the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, Coach of the Year by the Pigskin Club of DC, and All Met Coach of the Year by the Washington Post. During the summer, Colin directs The Heights Soccer Camp and The Dangerous Camp for Boys. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Liberal Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife, Nicole, and their five children live in Kensington.