4 Ways to Recognize a True Teacher

Written by on April 6, 2009 in Basics Of Self Education - 14 Comments


There are a lot of people who claim to be teachers. Some have certification from the state, some are followed as gurus, and some offer their services with a “money back guarantee.” But, not one of these qualifications means that a person is actually able to teach.

Whether or not you’re attending school, the need will arise for you to find a teacher or mentor to help you on your educational journey. You may need someone to guide you in your understanding of great literature, show you how to lay brick, or help you excel in your career.

Whenever you’re searching for help, make sure you find someone who is a prepared to offer it. Over the last few years of teaching and learning, I’ve discovered four traits all effective educators have in common. Certificates and titles mean little when compared to these attributes of a true teacher:

A True Teacher Has Knowledge, Not “Love”

As a high school English teacher, I met many fellow educators who didn’t know much about their subjects at all. Nor did they care to. They went to college, figured that English was an easy enough major, and decided to teach when other jobs seemed out of their reach. When asked why they choose teaching, generally the response would be something along the lines of “Oh, I just love the kids.”

People who teach out of love are well intentioned. But, they fail to have anything legitimate to offer. Sure, they may have some superficial understanding. But, without true insight and knowledge, their attempts at helping you develop such are futile.

When you’re looking for a spouse, choose someone who loves you. When you’re looking for a teacher, choose someone who knows what they’re talking about.

A True Teacher Shows You How to Think, Not What to Think

Math teachers do one thing right: they show students how to complete similar problems using a formula or method. When they put a problem on the board, it is used to demonstrate how the equation is to be solved – not just give the solution to that one problem. When math teachers give a test, most of the questions consist of problems the students have never seen before. But, these teachers are confident that the students will be able to answer the problems because they have been taught the formula.

It would be outrageous for a math teacher to show students how to complete just one problem. But, unfortunately, that’s what educators do in many other disciplines.

When looking for a true teacher, it is essential that you find someone who can show you how to think about a particular subject instead of just what to think.

Let’s consider a lesson on literature…

A what-to-think teacher would tell you what the themes of a book are. He might ask questions about what you noticed and then say “The themes of this book are: love and betrayal.” When you are finished with the lesson, you’ll know what to think about that one book.

A how-to-think teacher would help you understand how an author develops a theme. He would discuss the literary devices used to create meaning and how they work. When you are finished with the lesson, you’ll know what the themes of that book are. But, you’ll also know how to discover the themes in other books using the method you’ve learned. This teacher understands that the book you’re studying is just a tool to help you learn how to think about all books.

Seek how-to-think teachers in all your endeavors – academic and professional. If you’re a real estate agent, seek a mentor who will show you methods to evaluate and sell any house, not just the one you’re discussing at the moment. If you’re a programmer, seek an instructor who will help you learn how to approach any project, not just hand you a line of code that works in a single situation.

A True Teacher Creates Peers, Not Fans

Almost everyone has been to a college course or employee training session where the lecturer is talking “at” you instead of to you. Sometimes these lessons are boring. But, sometimes they are conducted with great charisma and charm. This is where the trouble begins.

An exciting presentation or a pumped-up conversation can be a starting point. But, don’t mistake charisma for the ability to teach. Many self-proclaimed gurus make big promises about the ways they can help you succeed, but have little to offer in reality. They’re all pomp and circumstance, handshakes and business cards. When it comes down to it, they don’t recognize you as someone capable of meaningful thought. Instead, these false teachers are all about building a fan club.

You can spot a true teacher by their willingness to really hear you. True teachers will relate to you as a fellow human being able to think on your own. They teach you to help you become a peer, not to mold you into a loyal groupie.

The building of fan clubs is a common occurrence both on college campuses and business world. Many graduates remember that one beloved professor who had full classes and a massive ego. Businessmen are often familiar with the boss who rewards yes-men and strikes back at those who don’t put up with his antics. Beware of these teachers and, instead, seek out someone with a mature enough perspective to truly listen.

A True Teacher Helps You Find Autonomy, Not Dependence

When you find a true teacher, you won’t need him forever. As a wise man once said: “A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.”

True teachers show pupils how to find the answers themselves and how to manage their own learning.

While all knowledge can’t be imparted in a single session, a true teacher does not jealously guard his understanding. He helps students learn as fast as they are able and stand on their own as soon as they are ready.

In the same way that good parents must gradually let go and allow children to learn on their own, good teachers must wean their pupils from constant interaction. True teachers help their students recognize their own abilities and autonomy. They prepare pupils to succeed on their own. A true teacher may always be there for you, but less as an educator and more as a friend.

Finding a True Teacher

It isn’t easy to find a teacher that has all of these traits. But, the search is definitely worth it. Once you find a true teacher, you’ll never settle for less.

14 Comments on "4 Ways to Recognize a True Teacher"

  1. pacio April 7, 2009 at 5:16 pm · Reply

    Very interesting article (and web site).

    Thanks from Italy 🙂

  2. eV April 11, 2009 at 10:10 pm · Reply

    Excellent article. I specially like point three. It’s indeed very common for most people to confuse a charismatic “teacher” with a real teacher. It’s so annoying XD.

  3. Jamie April 15, 2009 at 12:37 pm · Reply

    Thanks for your comments pacio and eV. I appreciate the feedback!

  4. Ajay April 18, 2009 at 6:28 am · Reply

    Dear Jamie
    I am Ajay sharma Editor” Teacher’s Net” a magazine dedicated to the professional development of the Teachetrs in India. Recently I came across this one of your wonderful article and was overwhelmed not only by the contents but by the presentation. In this context I would like to seek your kind permission to reprint the same so that our fraternity in India could also benefit by the same
    Thanks and regards

  5. Ajay April 18, 2009 at 6:29 am · Reply

    Dear Jamie
    I am Ajay sharma Editor” Teacher’s Net” a magazine dedicated to the professional development of the Teachers in India. Recently I came across this one of your wonderful article and was overwhelmed not only by the contents but by the presentation. In this context I would like to seek your kind permission to reprint the same so that our fraternity in India could also benefit by the same
    Thanks and regards

  6. Jamie April 18, 2009 at 12:40 pm · Reply

    Hi Ajay, could you please send me an email about that to: selfmadescholar@gmail.com.

  7. Ben K. June 14, 2009 at 1:06 pm · Reply

    I agree with all of your points. Your first point is only half right. I know plenty of teachers who fit all four of your points but they aren’t successful because they don’t love their students. To be an effective teacher, you must have a love of and for your students. Your students will pick up on your lack of love and you won’t be able to teach them anything. Please, love your students. Love seeing them everyday. Love engaging them in discussion. Love reading and listening to what they have to say. Love their successes and failures. Love them, in addition to everything else that you listed.

  8. Md. Rizwan Ali June 28, 2009 at 9:54 pm · Reply

    Hi Jamie,
    your article is good , i am agree with you, with out loving student and without good understanding with subjects no teacher of the world can not produce good and healthy mind in world.

  9. Kaled August 6, 2009 at 11:43 am · Reply

    Aspire to inspire…before you expire!

    Great site, keep up the good wrok.

  10. Pete October 28, 2009 at 9:55 pm · Reply

    Jamie’s organization and language efficiency is superb here. I pondered her post for most of the evening before finally responding to it on my blog, maybe as her ideas relate more to my own pedagogy. You can read it here:

    Thanks for this great space, Jamie.

  11. Shahid Usman December 8, 2009 at 11:17 pm · Reply

    Hi Jamie,
    i was just going through the web pages to read something about Teachery & Art of Teaching. you are quite right & your analysis & observation is quite realisitic , i really appreciate your effort.
    Keep going
    May God Bless You

  12. Given Malakalaka April 6, 2010 at 4:48 am · Reply

    There are two classes of educators in the world. One class are those whom God makes channels of light, and the other class are those whom Satan uses as his agents, who are wise to do evil. One class contemplates the character of God, and increases in the knowledge of Jesus, whom God hath sent into

  13. Bill Davis May 12, 2010 at 11:43 am · Reply

    I once had a teacher ( in nursery school ) who took us on a field trip to a large library on a college campus. She said to us, all the information these books contain will fit inside your brain. I was flabbergasted.

    When I arrived home I remember telling my grandfather about the trip,he told me that I needed to learn someting new everyday. He went on to say if ever a day comes and you didn’t learn something new that day,I was dead to the world.

    I didn’t understand it then,however, I endevored to learn something new anyway. I still do.


  14. temitope July 23, 2010 at 2:01 am · Reply

    You wont believe am just at the verge of supplying answers to my kid homework cos am in a haste to pick up items in a shop. i am glad i read this before i did. i appreciate your good work.

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