How to be a better teacher: 18 ideas from students, part 1

September 6, 2015 , In: TEACH

‘If you could say one thing to all teachers around the world, one thing that will help them be better teachers, what would you say?’

I posed this question to my students just out of curiosity. I asked just as I was about to tell them my one big thing that I learnt from the International Transforming Education Conference (ITEC 2015).

Some hands went straight up, ready to answer the question. But I let them sit for a while, saying I wanted them to really think about it.

The answers came, one by one, and I wish you could have been there. I had not planned it but I uncovered a goldmine of what matters to students. After the fourth child shared, I knew I had to write down their thoughts. It is my privilege to share their message to you.

Here are 18 ideas on how to be a better teacher, straight from students:

  1. Don’t do too much work, just what you need to

Surprised by the perceptiveness of this student? I was. But I really should get used to it. Kids not only say the funniest things but also the things we need to hear.

‘The Hard Part’ by Peter Greene is a permanently bookmarked article on my computer. I remember the first time I read it, I was upstairs in our study and my husband was calling me to come down for a cuppa. I replied, ‘Wait, honey, I’m reading about the hardest part of teaching!’ Cameron teased in reply, ‘Is it knowing when to stop?’ I was only on my second year of teaching then but my husband pretty much nailed it, his answer was close to what Peter Greene had to say…

The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:
There is never enough.
There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.
-Peter Greene, ‘The Hard Part’


Let’s listen to our students, let’s not do too much work, just what we need. That sounds a lot like setting priorities. Make a list of non-negotiables in your weekly planning and then another one for other meaningful tasks that you could be doing.

  1. Be firm and be joyful

Another student articulated a similar idea saying, ‘Be strict but also nice.’ After ‘be firm’ was mentioned by different kids, one student, deep in thought, added, ‘Be joyful. I think it is important to be firm but it’s not what makes students want to go to school. So teachers should be joyful.’

Again, amazing perception from a nine-year-old. One way I believe you can do this starting this week is to consistently implement a clear and gracious classroom management plan. Have a look at Smart Classroom Management and you’re set! I highly recommend this system because I have reaped its benefits. Ask any student in my class and they can tell you that the plan is there so I can best protect their right to learn and to enjoy school.

  1. Get to know students

Do you have students telling you stories from their weekend? How their Dad took them to the skate park or how they rode their bike downhill and landed on a prickle bush? Maybe they have asked you to pray for their birthday party coming up in 6 months’ time. If so, you are fortunate. Treasure not just these stories but the fact that they trust you. Students want their teachers to know them. As teachers, we are in the best place to teach and grow our students when we know them, their stories, their strengths, their struggles, and their dreams. Get to know your students, it matters to them.

How? Start by sharing some of your personal stories. If you can be honest and candid with them, they know they can be the same with you. Also, make the time for them to share their joys. Once I asked students what they loved about our class and I was surprised that for many of them it was ‘our class conversations’. We have a lot of fun things going on in our class – dance parties, paper plane competitions, games – I was delightfully surprised that out of all these, they really appreciate just chatting as a class. It’s definitely one of my favourites too.

get to know your students

  1. Have fun with them

There are so many ways you can do this and no, it does not have to take up your curriculum time. I believe this ties in with the second idea, being joyful. If you are joyful in your teaching, you will naturally have fun with your class. Students enjoy it when you let them share their narratives to each other, just look at their bright faces and hear them giggle and laugh. Students have fun when you congratulate them and shake their hands profusely when they finally get how to divide three digit numbers with renaming. It is festive when you and your students are reminded of God’s awesome power through the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. And their persistence in trying to say the names can be entertaining too.

There is opportunity for fun in every lesson. Just be genuinely joyful. Show your students how you love being their teacher and how much you enjoy helping them learn. Just how important is teacher-student relationships? In Professor John Hattie’s meta-study of major factors that influence achievement, it ranks number seven in terms of positive effect on student achievement. How fitting that I learnt about this in his presentation, ‘Seeing teaching through the eyes of students’!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first four of the 18 gems shared by my students! More importantly, I hope you’re now itching to try some of the recommendations. Let’s recap:

1. Don’t do too much work, just what you need to

2. Be firm and be joyful

3. Get to know your students

4. Have fun with them


Next time, I’ll share the next five ideas in part two. Any guesses on what they will be?

Part three‘s ready for you too!

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Questions and comments

    • Amar
    • August 28, 2016

    Thanks rachel. Very good info for me as an intern teacher. By the way, how did you start the ‘our class conversation’? I find it difficult to make my student (primary school) to talk one by one as they will interrupt others.

      • Rachel
      • August 30, 2016

      Hi Amar! :)

      Class conversations are a regular part of the day. First, you have to model good listening and conversation skills and emphasise the value of taking turns. Some classes learn this more quickly than others but if you do it often enough and make sure every one does get a chance to be heard throughout the week, you’ll be surprised at some of the lovely and deep discussions you can have! :) We talk about listening with their eyes and ears.

    • Rose Marie Warrell
    • October 11, 2015

    I love my job, I love teaching, and I love my students. How can I not work so hard and too much? I know it takes a lot of my time, which i don’t mind. However, I have family and friends who keep telling me to get a life. My own children are older, two of them married, four grandsons, and an amazing, wonderful husband of 27 1/2 years. I’m on my 12th year of teaching and always looking to improve myself. I can also be a little disorganized. Any suggestions?

    • Reply

      Hi Rose Marie. I think it’s beautiful to love and care for your students as much as you do and I believe there’s no shame for teaching to be such a big part of your life. The problem is, as you’d know, long hours don’t always equate to productivity. If your friends and family think that’s all you do, perhaps they want more quality time with you? A few suggestions: don’t work from home (or stay back in school) all nights of the week, work on your list of things to do according to priority (what directly affects your students’ learning first) and when with friends and family, be all there with them and for them. :)

        • Rose Warrell
        • October 15, 2015

        Thank you Rachel. I will work on prioritizing my tasks. Do you know of a checklist or useful tool to use when doing this?

        • Reply

          Hmmm… haven’t come across a ‘priorities checklist’ yet but maybe I just have to look. I usually just write all I have to do and then go by what is most urgent and important. I remember reading from a blog, I think on, that it’s good to prioritise anything that involves people – students, colleagues, parents, etc.!

  1. Pingback: Para professores…especialmente infantis!!! | Aulas Particulares de Inglês

  2. Reply

    Awesome! I´m from Brazil and I believe we are stuck in some major problems in Education that we don´t even stop and listen to our kids. I believe they would say pretty much the same. Thank you for sharing this precious content with us.

    • Reply

      Hi Pat, very happy that the content helps you. There is much to gain from listening to our students so I do hope this inspires other educators to stop and really listen. Thank you very much for writing about and sharing my posts! Part 3 is due next week! :)

    • Rlove Rojas
    • September 8, 2015

    I like this! Pretty applicable to my kind of work too…maybe for number 3, replace students with your people or your agents or your team… :)

    Looking forward to the rest.

      • Rachel
      • September 8, 2015

      Very cool that it’s applicable in your context too! Thanks! Maybe it’s because all professions have an element of teaching, especially if you’
      re in leadership just like you are. :)

Rachel Herweynen

Teaching Principal

Alive because of Jesus. My husband Cameron and I have the privilege of living and working in a remote indigenous community, our home, Gäwa on Elcho Island, Australia. What a joy to not only be principal and teacher but also granddaughter, mother, aunty, child and mother-in-law. Above all, always daughter of the King.

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