Besides Christmas and the end of the school year, the first weeks of school seem to be the most popular time for former students to send emails, cards, or simply come around to visit. Certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher is when students continue to share their lives with us long after they’ve left our classrooms. Some of them are excited about their path toward great success, while others seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for something, although they can’t quite articulate what that is. One thing they all have in common, though, is the greeting: “Remember me? It’s your favorite student!”

It always tickles me when kids who graduated a mere three months ago ask if I remember them, as if my short term memory is somehow compromised, yet they all follow it with the proclamation that they are my favorite student. The logic is a bit asinine: if indeed they are my favorite, then surely I wouldn’t forget them. Nonetheless, it seems to be more about ensuring they mattered to me enough to remember them than it is about jockeying for position in my affections. I am always intrigued by this desire to be a “favorite,” but it is something I understand.

The third out of four girls, I grew up competing with my sisters for my parents’ attention. After dealing with my two older sisters and caring for the baby, my parents were too weary to care whether I ate dirt, came into contact with bacteria, washed my face, or did my homework. Or perhaps they didn’t worry about those things because I was a people pleaser and a fastidious child (okay, acutely OCD is probably a closer description). Regardless, I spent much of my childhood dodging sibling abuse, torturing my little sister, and organizing my clothes by color and sleeve length. As an adult, my schedule allowed my mother and I to travel together without her other children and I once asked her who her favorite child was. She said, “You are my favorite, Eveline.” She then went on to list all the things she loved about me, the traits she found impressive and admirable, the appreciation she had for my talents and abilities. She truly made me feel loved, but more than that, she made me feel as though I was awesome! It wasn’t until after she passed away that I learned my mother had said the same thing to my three sisters.

I thought about this for a long time. I’m not sure it bothered me that my mother appeared to be a liar so much as it revealed to me my mother’s infinite wisdom and understanding of what each of her children needed from her. The grammarian in me realizes that what she actually said was “You are my favorite Eveline,” just as much as my sisters were her favorite Ani, Tina, and Pam. The daughter in me is a bit jealous (I’m not sure sibling rivalry ever truly goes away), but the teacher and parent in me completely understands her meaning. When kids proclaim they are my favorite, I always agree: “You are my favorite [insert name]!” No comma. No misdirection. No falsehoods. In fact, I feel it is a privilege and an affirmation of my calling that students care enough about my opinion of them to seek my approval and desire favoritism.

I know I’m not the only one, and many teachers out there right now are nodding their heads in agreement. So the real question is not why students seek this badge of approval from their teachers but what qualities do great teachers have that draw students back long after they’ve graduated? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I think I have a few good guesses:

  1. Great teachers find humor and irreverence in the messiness of learning. At some point in their academic journeys, students are taught that learning is systematic and knowledge is a sacred prize at the end, much like the princess in the castle; students who do not “get” something on the first try often feel frustrated and give up because of this misconception about learning. However, as experienced learners, great teachers know that learning can be chaotic, disorganized, and difficult, and that knowledge doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package at the end of the lesson. Teachers remove the veil of mystery surrounding knowledge and show students that learning can be fun and funny, especially when one examines and celebrates the failures that inevitably occur during the process, as well as fluid, organic, and always evolving.
  2. Great teachers tell students when they do something well. They express their admiration for student ideas, praise their efforts, recognize their progress as success, and offer ideas for their further improvement. Teachers monitor students’ activities, read their writing, and offer both verbal and written encouragement, much of which only takes a minute or two of personal attention but which provides the boost they need to build their self-confidence and become risk-takers in their own critical thinking and learning.
  3. Great teachers listen to what their students say. Teenagers especially seek someone on which to practice their thinking, someone who will validate their ideas, and, as is usually required, offer them an alternative perspective or lens through which to view the world and their beliefs. When they posit an idea or belief that seems particularly unripe, great teachers push them to rethink not by telling them what to think but by asking them questions and helping them think through alternatives.
  4. Great teachers are not their students’ parents. For many reasons, teenagers seek validation outside the home. While parental involvement in a child’s education is crucial, we all remember rebelling against our parents, their beliefs, their customs, and their rules. Teachers provide a voice of reason and instruction for students (and an ally for parents!) whose only other avenues for perspective, growth, and maturity are other teens. Depending upon the needs of the student, sometimes a teacher’s voice is a hard truth bluntly stated, while other times it is a suggestion that guides a student rather than states the painfully obvious.
  5. Great teachers don’t particularly care what a student’s past holds. They don’t listen to other teachers complain about the way a student behaves in their class or that a student has a history of negative choices or even the trouble a student has been in outside of school. In a great teacher’s class, students have a fresh start to be whomever they choose to be without the shadow of their past hanging over them.
  6. Great teachers never allow a student to quit. When something is difficult or challenging, teachers provide avenues that discourage quitting and encourage new attempts. They aren’t afraid to allow students to fail because they know that failure offers opportunities to succeed in a different way. Truly great teachers offer students alternative paths to success by building their confidence in risk-taking and help students recognize that quitting deprives them of learning, growth, character development, grit, and ultimately, success.

In today’s overcrowded classrooms, finding the time to engage students individually and on a personal level can seem overwhelming. While federal and state governments have different ideas about the goals of education, it seems to me that the primary goal of any great teacher is to create space for students to practice their independence, their selfhood, and their burgeoning adulthood. Allowing them the freedom to formulate what they want out of their education, whether that is a desire to become better writers, more critical thinkers, or simply to learn how to learn, and then striving to provide that instruction for them should be the guiding principle in the classroom–in education as a whole. Teachers work with students to help them achieve their goals. Great teachers push them further than they thought to dream.

Share your thoughts about or experiences with great teachers.