For more great articles like this, subscribe to our magazine. Buy 3+ subscriptions for only $12 each.
7 characteristics that spell
the difference between good teachers and great
The teacher had obviously prepared her lesson
because it was full of sticky notes, yellow highlights, and bold
words in the margins. She’d clearly rehearsed her presentation
because she stood poised behind her music stand, dressed in a
striking outfit. During her lesson, the kids in her quiet classroom
were too quiet. She’d prepared her lesson, but the children weren’t
engaged in learning. This fourth-grade teacher couldn’t have been
After observing nearly 300 churches in the past five years, I’ve
come to see that very specific competencies separate great teachers
from those who are good teachers. While one or two of these
qualities are intrinsic, most can be developed. The new teacher
mentioned earlier simply lacked the skill to involve children in
the lesson. With the right training and resources, though,
challenges like these can be easily overcome.
How about you? Are you a good or great teacher? Consider these
seven characteristics of effective teachers, and then take the test
to find out where you land on the good-to-great continuum.
1. KNOW JESUS
The French language has two words for “know” that are helpful to
our understanding of the English word. They’re connaître
and savoir. This first word means to know about something.
That’s what the Bible means when it says the demons believe and
tremble. They don’t really trust Jesus to run their lives; they
only know about him. In the same way, knowing that my wife’s ring
size is 8 and her eyes are hazel and she stands 5 feet 8 inches
tall wouldn’t show that I truly know her and love her.
Now savoir is different in remarkable ways. It means to
know something experientially! And what I’ve observed about great
teachers is that they may not know all the facts about Jesus
Christ, but they know and experience him on a daily basis. This
distinction is so great that it separates devils from the devoted
followers we call Christians-it’s that important! Why is this
important in the classroom? Great teachers love and know Jesus, and
it overflows to the kids.
2. LOVE CHILDREN
“If you can’t stand the smell of the sheep, stay out of the
pastorate!” said Howard Hendricks, a professor at Dallas
Theological Seminary. I laugh every time I think about this, but
it’s one of the central truths to power in ministry. We must love
people! We must love children.
“Miss Donna,” a four-minute recruiting commercial in Make It
REAL: Group’s Easy Teacher Training & Recruitment (Group
Publishing, Inc.), makes me weep every time I see it. This teacher
(based on the real person who taught my friend Rick Chromey)
expresses love through her gentle patience and persistence in the
classroom. She never says, “I love you” — she shows it.
Do you like children? What would children say? They can spot a
phony every time. Loving Jesus and loving children are
interrelated, and not simply because they share a common verb. Love
for children springs from our love for Jesus, or else it’s a purely
ineffective sentiment. When we love in this way, we “connect the
dots” by bringing kids full circle into a growing love for
3. INVOLVE KIDS
When a classroom teacher genuinely involves children in learning,
there’s a lot more noise than poise! Christiaan VandenHoevel is the
children’s pastor at Crossroads Church in Livermore, California, a
church that’s increased attendance by 2,000 in the past year. I
visited his classroom of 4-year-olds, who were busy with meaningful
learning in the form of a very active painting project. Shelley was
covered with dried paint, but she could quite effectively relate
the story of Jesus calming the storm on the blue sea because she
was involved in its retelling through the use of messy paint.
Involving children means that, like a coach on the sidelines of a
game, you’re facilitating the success of your kids’ learning,
not spending your time doing all the talking. When asked
about this important basic characteristic, a group of teachers in
Wisconsin used phrases such as “Successful teachers let kids have
fun learning”; “Get down on the floor with kids”; “Less hearing,
more doing by students”; and “Chaotic learning is better than quiet
If loving Jesus, loving kids, and involving kids were all one
needed (and these are critical), why would so many teachers resign
from our classrooms? They’ve ceased to be learners themselves. The
longshoreman-turned-writer Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change,
learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves
beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer
I recently witnessed a remarkable example of a teacher who’s
ceased to learn. She’d crossed out all the questions directed at
the children in her teacher guide and substituted her own. Here’s a
question she omitted from a lesson about Jesus calming the storm:
“What are you afraid of?” Which, if asked, would have given that
teacher a wealth of important information about her kids. But she
thought that she already knew them, so she short-circuited the
thinking/ learning process. In its place she wrote, “Are you afraid
of the dark?” and “Are you afraid of lightning?” and finally,
“Who’s with us when we’re afraid?” Now these seem like benign
questions, but what do they subtly do? They force-feed information
to children in place of allowing them to think. The teacher has
already learned the lesson, and teaching for her is simply telling
the children what they need to know. This is a fundamental flaw of
many teachers, one that’s thinly disguised as legitimate and
When I started in ministry full time, it was the policy of our
Christian education board that anyone who taught had to attend
quarterly teacher training meetings. As a young children’s
minister, I thought this was unduly cumbersome because the fact was
we needed teachers, and laying out this rather onerous requirement
would only scare people away. But after multiple ministry settings
and countless teacher training sessions, I’m convinced of its
necessity. Teachers who feel too busy or aren’t interested in
learning something new will, indeed, inherit “a world that no
5. KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TEACHING
You must know three things and forever be an expert in them: our
Bible, your lesson, and your students. I list these three because
they’re interrelated. The Bible is eternal and will outlast heaven
and earth. It’s truth, and it’s life, and by it we grow. Your
students are finite; they’re created and they’re forever growing.
The lesson is the bridge between the world of the student and the
world of the Bible. Great teachers get students into the Bible.
They must revere the Scriptures; they must “accurately handle the
word of truth” because it’s “powerful and active, sharper than any
two-edged sword” and is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for
correction and instruction in righteousness.” If you think this
Bible is full of inaccuracies, you won’t defer to it. If you don’t
understand today’s kids, you won’t be relevant, and if you avoid
using curriculum that’s deftly written and skillfully integrated,
you’ll be playing hit and miss with your students.
“Great teachers know how to recognize whether kids get it and when
to move on,” says a teacher in Wisconsin. This shows a level of
objectivity and flexibility on the part of a teacher who can read
an audience. Great teachers connect personally with their students.
Notice this requires an approach that relies less on the lectern
and more on the floor — in other words, being at eye-level with
children. Great communicators spend more time understanding their
audience than they do preparing their speeches, or in this case,
7. UNDERSTAND KIDS’
There are many different kinds of students in this world, and we
do them a disservice when we teach in a manner that reflects the
way we learn, rather than one that accommodates kids’
individuality. Howard Gardner has done extensive research since the
’60s when he was a graduate student at Harvard. His theory of
multiple intelligences suggests another basic principle that
separates good teachers from great teachers: Kids are different and
Because we’re all “fearfully and wonderfully made,” God doesn’t
have A students and F students in his Sunday school class. We teach
kids about friendship with Jesus, not facts for some future test.
This is how we distinguish our ministries from kids’ school
Keith Johnson is an Ah-Ha Architect for Group Publishing,
7 CHARACTERISTICS OF GREAT TEACHERS
Use this self-test to find areas where you can develop your
class=”style12″>BASIC 1: Know
Jesus1. I pray at least once a day.
2. I enjoy worshipping at my church every week.
3. I can truly say that my relationship with Jesus is better today
4. When I’m down or facing difficulty, I always turn to
5. My class knows that Jesus is my first love.
class=”style16″>BASIC 2: Love
Children1. I know the names of all the children in my class.
2. Children smile at me every week in my class.
3. Hugs or high-fives are always part of my interaction with
4. I know what’s important in the lives of my children.
5. We celebrate birthdays in my classroom.
class=”style16″>BASIC 3: Involve Kids1. I try not to spend most of my classroom time talking.
2. I never answer my own questions but wait for the children to
3. Set up and take down are fun times to involve kids.
4. I often find myself watching children enjoy themselves.
5. At least once a month children get really sweaty in my
class=”style16″>BASIC 4: Keep
Learning1. I’ve attended training in the past three months.
2. I study my lesson and reflect on it during the week.
3. I’m a better teacher today than I was last year.
4. I sometimes allow questions to go unanswered because I don’t
5. I read my Bible every day.
class=”style16″>BASIC 5: Know What You’re
Teaching1. I read “Keeping Current” in Children’s Ministry Magazine to
2. I’ve visited the Web site of the curriculum we use at my
3. I’m interested in the world of children and the culture they
4. I know how what I teach relates to my church’s teaching
5. I take notes when I listen to the sermon in church.
class=”style16″>BASIC 6: Communicate
Effectively1. I know when my kids don’t get the lesson I’m teaching, and
2. I’m energetic, enthusiastic, and fully diligent in my
3. My children are free to correct me when I make a mistake.
4. I rarely have children miss my class when they don’t have
5. I call my children during the week if they’ve missed class (or
send a card).
class=”style16″>BASIC 7: Understand Kids’
Styles1. I know the way each child learns in my classroom, and adjust
2. I try to challenge my children but not exasperate them.
3. Sometimes I go slower when someone isn’t “getting it.”
4. I avoid lecturing my children.
5. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable with how I’m teaching because it
isn’t my own learning style.
Total Number of YES
_____out of 3
Total Number of NO _____out of 35
Total Number of MAYBE _____out of 35
“Yes” Score=1-15: Set an appointment with your
volunteer services coordinator, or take a spiritual gifts inventory. You probably aren’t
placed in your most effective ministry area.
“Yes” Score=15-25: Spend some one-on-one time
with your lead teacher or children’s director to work on a personal
“Yes” Score=25-35: You’re ready to be assigned a
novice teacher to show them what a great teacher does!