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The Art of Teaching 

By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.

“If a boy shows a gift for chemistry, the master must be able to encourage him, by throwing open window after window into the future, showing him what he can learn…”

During this holiday season, I think we should give thanks to all the teachers in our lives who have worked tirelessly to help us learn. Furthermore, I think we should acknowledge how hard it is to be a good teacher. Gilbert Highet, the renowned classicist, in his 1950s book The Art of Teaching, discusses the four characteristics of the good teacher.

A good teacher must know the subject. Obviously, the good teacher will know the material at the specific grade level he or she is teaching (such as 5th grade math or high school biology). However, the good teacher will more deeply understand the full breath of the subject. “If a boy shows a gift for chemistry, the master must be able to encourage him, by throwing open window after window into the future, showing him what he can learn at the university, what types of chemistry are most vital in peace and war, which big problems still remain to be solved, and (this is always important) how the great chemists of the past and present have lived and worked…Therefore teaching is inseparable from learning.” The good teacher masters his or her subject within individual limits of time and ability.

A good teacher must like the subject. A good teacher has a spontaneous and natural interest in the subject that he or she attempts to master. This enthusiasm will encourage the good teacher to continually learn more and more about a subject that is intuitively fascinating. Further, the students of the good teacher will recognize the sincere interest accorded this subject. Students will understand that the good teacher is not bored by the material or feigning an interest to get students to do homework.

A good teacher must like students. As Highet notes, “If you do not actually like boys and girls, or young men and young women, give up teaching.” A good teacher must especially enjoy the company of students in groups. Highet admits that some classes are difficult to manage. However, “it is essential to enjoy the conditions of teaching, to feel at home in a room containing twenty or thirty healthy young people, and to make our enjoyment of this group-feeling give us energy for our teaching.”

A good teacher must know his students. He or she will come to understand how the young are different from adults in both their thought processes and interests. A good teacher will use these differences as he or she explains the subject. Furthermore, a good teacher “must know the names and faces of his pupils.” Why? “If you wish to influence them in any way, you must convince them that you know them as individuals.”

To acquire these four attributes, the good teacher must dedicate his or her life, passionately, to the teaching profession. He or she must be comfortable in the classroom and equally confident in private life about this chosen field, even during trying circumstances. “The teacher’s chief difficulty is poverty,” Highet wryly noted. Even this obstacle, however, will not impede the good teacher from continually learning and constantly sharing the joy of what they know and what they want us to learn. To be taught by a good teacher is truly one of the greatest gifts that any student will ever receive.

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS ( ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at

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