15 Characteristics of a 21st-Century Teacher

Recent technological advances have affected many areas of our lives: the way we communicate, collaborate, learn, and, of course, teach. Along with that, those advances necessitated an expansion of our vocabulary, producing definitions such as digital natives, digital immigrants, and, the topic of this post — «21st-century teacher.»

As I am writing this post, I am trying to recall if I ever had heard phrases such as «20th-century teacher» or «19th-century teacher.» Quick Google search reassures me that there is no such word combination. Changing the «20th» to «21st» brings different results: a 21st-century school, 21st-century education, 21st-century teacher, 21st-century skills — all there! I then searched for Twitter hashtags and Amazon books, and the results were just the same; nothing for the «20th-century teacher» while a lot for the «21st»: #teacher21, #21stcenturyskills, #21stCTeaching and no books with titles #containing «20th century» while quite a few on the 21st-century teaching and learning.

Obviously, teaching in the 21-century is an altogether different phenomenon; never before could learning be happening the way it is now — everywhere, all the time, on any possible topic, supporting any possible learning style or preference. But what does being a 21st-century teacher really mean?

Below are 15 characteristics of a 21st-century teacher:

1. Learner-Centered Classroom and Personalized Instructions

As students have access to any information possible, there certainly is no need to «spoon-feed» the knowledge or teach «one-size fits all» content. As students have different personalities, goals, and needs, offering personalized instructions is not just possible but also desirable. When students are allowed to make their own choices, they own their learning, increase intrinsic motivation, and put in more effort — an ideal recipe for better learning outcomes!

2. Students as Producers

Today’s students have the latest and greatest tools, yet, the usage in many cases barely goes beyond communicating with family and friends via chat, text, or calls. Even though students are now viewed as digital natives, many are far from producing any digital content. While they do own expensive devices with capabilities to produce blogs, infographics, books, how-to videos, and tutorials, just to name a few, in many classes, they are still asked to turn those devices off and work with handouts and worksheets. Sadly, often times these papers are simply thrown away once graded. Many students don’t even want to do them, let alone keep or return them later. When given a chance, students can produce beautiful and creative blogs, movies, or digital stories that they feel proud of and share with others.

3. Learn New Technologies

In order to be able to offer students choices, having one’s own hands-on experience and expertise will be useful. Since technology keeps developing, learning a tool once and for all is not a option. The good news is that new technologies are new for the novice and and experienced teachers alike, so everyone can jump in at any time! I used a short-term subscription to www.lynda.com, which has many resources for learning new technologies.

4. Go Global

Today’s tools make it possible to learn about other countries and people first hand. Of course, textbooks are still sufficient, yet, there is nothing like learning languages, cultures, and communication skills from actually talking to people from other parts of the world.

It’s a shame that with all the tools available, we still learn about other cultures, people, and events from the media. Teaching students how to use the tools in their hands to «visit» any corner of this planet will hopefully make us more knowledgable and sympathetic.

5. Be Smart and Use Smart Phones

Once again — when students are encouraged to view their devices as valuable tools that support knowledge (rather than destructions), they start using them as such. I remember my first years of teaching when I would not allow cell phones in class and I’d try to explain every new vocabulary word or answer any question myself — something I would not even think of doing today!

I have learned that different students have different needs when it comes to help with new vocabulary or questions; therefore, there is no need to waste time and explain something that perhaps only one or two students would benefit from. Instead, teaching students to be independent and know how to find answers they need makes the class a different environment!

I have seen positive changes ever since I started viewing students’ devices as useful aid. In fact, sometimes I even respond by saying «I don’t know — use Google and tell us all!» What a difference in their reactions and outcomes!

6. Blog

I have written on the importance of both student and teacher blogging. Even my beginners of English could see the value of writing for real audience and establishing their digital presence. To blog or not to blog should not be a question any more!

7. Go Digital

Another important attribute is to go paperless — organizing teaching resources and activities on one’s own website and integrating technology bring students learning experience to a different level. Sharing links and offering digital discussions as opposed to a constant paper flow allows students to access and share class resources in a more organized fashion.

8. Collaborate

Technology allows collaboration between teachers & students. Creating digital resources, presentations, and projects together with other educators and students will make classroom activities resemble the real world. Collaboration should go beyond sharing documents via e-mail or creating PowerPoint presentations. Many great ideas never go beyond a conversation or paper copy, which is a great loss! Collaboration globally can change our entire experience!

9. Use Twitter Chat

Participating in Twitter chat is the cheapest and most efficient way to organize one’s own PD, share research and ideas, and stay current with issues and updates in the field. We can grow professionally and expand our knowledge as there is a great conversation happening every day, and going to conferences is no longer the only way to meet others and build professional learning networks.

10. Connect

Connect with like-minded individuals. Again, today’s tools allow us to connect anyone, anywhere, anytime. Have a question for an expert or colleague? Simply connect via social media: follow, join, ask, or tell!

11. Project-Based Learning

As today’s students have an access to authentic resources on the web, experts anywhere in the world, and peers learning the same subject somewhere else, teaching with textbooks is very «20th-century» (when the previously listed option were not available). Today’s students should develop their own driving questions, conduct their research, contact experts, and create final projects to share all using devices already in their hands. All they need from their teacher is guidance!

12. Build Your Positive Digital Footprint

It might sound obvious, but it is for today’s teachers to model how to appropriately use social media, how to produce and publish valuable content, and how to create sharable resources. Even though it’s true that teachers are people, and they want to use social media and post their pictures and thoughts, we cannot ask our students not to do inappropriate things online if we ourselves do it. Maintaining professional behavior both in class and online will help build positive digital footprint and model appropriate actions for students.

13. Code

While this one might sound complicated, coding is nothing but today’s literacy. As a pencil or pen were «the tools» of the 20th-century, making it impossible to picture a teacher not capable to operate with it, today’s teacher must be able to operate with today’s pen and pencil, i.e., computers. Coding is very interesting to learn — the feeling of writing a page with HTML is amazing! Even though I have ways to go, just like in every other field, a step at a time can take go a long way. Again, lynda.com is a great resource to start with!

14. Innovate

I invite you to expand your teaching toolbox and try new ways you have not tried before, such as teaching with social media or replacing textbooks with web resources. Not for the sake of tools but for the sake of students!

Ever since I started using TED talks and my own activities based on those videos, my students have been giving a very different feedback. They love it! They love using Facebook for class discussions and announcements. They appreciate novelty — not the new tools, but the new, more productive and interesting ways of using them.

15. Keep Learning

As new ways and new technology keep emerging, learning and adapting is essential. The good news is: it’s fun, and even 20 min a day will take you a long way!

As always, please share your vision in the comment area! Happy 21st-century teaching!


8 Characteristics Of A Great Teacher

8-characteristics-of-a-great-teacher8 Characteristics Of A Great Teacher

by Ian Lancaster

What makes a teacher strong?

What differentiates the best from the rest? There’s no shortage of bodies (some dramatically misguided) attempting to solve this riddle.  The answers are nebulous at best. Below is a list of traits, some of which may be familiar but many of which will never show up on any sort of performance review.  Check them out and see what you think.

1. They Demonstrate Confidence

Confidence while teaching can mean any number of things, it can range from having confidence in your knowledge of the material being learned to having confidence that your teaching acumen is second to none. Though these two (and many other) “confidences” are important the most critical confidence a teacher can have is much more general, and tougher to describe than that.

It’s the confidence that you know you’re in the right spot doing what you want to be doing and that no matter what transpires, having that time to spend with those young learners is going to be beneficial both for them and for yourself.  It’s clear to students when teachers exude this feeling. Working in schools is difficult and stressful, and also immensely rewarding. But if you’re not confident that you’re in the right place when you’re teaching…you’re probably not.

2. They Have Life Experience

Having some life experience outside the classroom and outside the realm of education is invaluable for putting learning into context and keeping school activities in perspective. Teachers who have travelled, worked in other fields, played high level sports or enjoyed any number of other life experiences bring to the profession outlooks other than “teacher”. From understanding the critical importance of collaboration and teamwork, to being able to answer that ageless senior math question “when are we going to use this?”, educators who have spent significant time and energy on alternate pursuits come to the profession with a deep understanding of where school fits into the bigger picture of life.

3. They Understand Each Student’s Motivation

Just as each student has a different set of interests, every student will have a correspondingly different set of motivators. Many (or most) students will be able to reconcile their own outlook and ambitions with what’s happening in the class and take motivation from that relationship.  Unfortunately some students will rely simply on external motivators, but worse, we’ve all run into students who really can’t find a relationship between what makes them tick and what’s happening in the classroom around them.

These students run the risk of disengaging altogether. This is where the master teacher knows each of her students and helps them to contextualize the work they’re doing to allow the student to make a connection with something in his realm of interest. Teachers who can’t help students make this connection need to rethink what’s going on. After all, what IS the point of work in which a student finds no interest and for which he can make no connection?


4. They’re People, Not Heroes.

Yes, all teachers are heroes. Now let’s move beyond the platitude to what this really means.  Some teachers still have trouble showing any sort of vulnerability of fallibility. These teachers will expend immense amounts of energy hiding the fact they’re frustrated at something, that they’re upset or perhaps even angry.  Why?  Other teachers get tied into logical knots to avoid admitting “I have no idea what the answer to your question is.” But teachers who genuinely connect with students are the ones who aren’t afraid to show emotions in class, who can admit that they aren’t in fact the repository of all knowledge.

Of course nobody want to be a wallowing, blubbering mess in class, but what better way to teach empathy than to give the students someone to empathize with when we’re having a bad day? What better way to foster collaboration and to teach that it’s okay not to know something than to say “I don’t know, let’s find that out!”?

5.  They’re Technologically Capable

Let’s not belabour this point, after all, plenty of ink (or pixels as the case may be!) has already been spilled on this topic. As time passes, the statement “But I’m not very good with _________.”(fill in the blank with any number of technological devices) is sounding ever more like “But I’m not very good with a telephone.”

The only time the sentiment above is acceptable is if it’s followed immediately by “…but I’m very willing to learn!” After all, we wouldn’t accept such weak rationalizations from students regarding their work. In 2013, as a profession, we lose credibility every time we allow excuses like this to go unchallenged. Enough said.

6. They Model Risk Taking

We encourage our students to be risk takers, we’d all like to be risk takers, but let’s be honest, the nature of the beast is that many teachers are not naturally risk takers.  This point goes hand in hand with showing vulnerability, the teacher who’s willing to go out on a limb, to try something new, to be “wacky” in the name of pedagogy earns the respect of students, even if the snickers seem to say something different.

No matter the success or failure of the risk taken, the experience will certainly be memorable for the kids in that class, and isn’t that what we’re aiming for?  After all, as the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

7. They Focus On Important Stuff

Whether it’s worrying about who’s late to class, collecting every little piece of work in order to “gather marks” or spending too much time lecturing to the class in order to “cover the material”, there’s no shortage of ways to distract teachers from what’s important.  Strong teachers know that things like chronic tardiness or skipping class are usually symptoms of larger issues and as such, spending precious time and energy trying to “fix” the issue almost never works.  That’s what administrators and counselors are for.

They also understand that efficient and effective assessment means eliminating busy work while giving targeted, meaningful feedback and that engaging the students, connecting the material to their interests and passions, is the surest way to maximize learning. There’s plenty of minutiae and enough CYA (Cover Your…) in education to easily get sidetracked, strong teachers keep their focus on what’s important.

8. They Don’t Worry Too Much About What Administrators Think

This trait is tied in with many of the others listed above. Strong teachers do their job without worrying too much about “what the principal will think”.  They’ll take risks, their classes may be noisy, or messy, or both.  Their activities may end up breaking something (usually the rules) in order to spark excitement or engagement.

They understand that learning is not a neat and tidy activity and that adhering too closely to rules and routines can drain from students the natural curiosity, spontaneity and passion that they bring to school.  Worrying about what the boss may think can be draining and restrictive in any job, teaching is no exception.

In fact, the best teachers live by the code “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”


20 Fundamentals: What Every Teacher Should Know About Learning


What makes a teacher successful?

Having an expertise in reading, writing, math or science is necessary, but the ability to transfer that knowledge into another person is what makes an excellent instructor stand out. What good is it if a teacher has all the facts, but cannot communicate them in a way that others can comprehend?

Aside from comprehending the curriculum content, teachers should have a basic understanding of how people acquire and absorb knowledge. The following list highlights 20 principles of learning every teacher should know.

1. Students Learn Differently

It may seem obnoxiously obvious, but how many classrooms are currently designed with one learning style in mind?

Worksheets and flashcards work well for students who absorb knowledge visually, but for a child who needs to hear the information in order to grasp it, traditional methods of teaching force him or her to use a physical sense that is not as well-developed.

The visual learner doesn’t have the same opportunity to stretch his or her other senses. If a teacher comes to the classroom with the basic knowledge that students learn differently, they will be better equipped to arrange the lessons in such a way that all senses are activated.

2. Use It Or Lose It

Using information is how it becomes knowledge.

Revising knowledge over a lifetime is how it becomes wisdom.

Learning can’t be about coverage, and is not “set it and forget it.”

3. Consider Kinesthetic Learning

Of the different learning styles, the kinesthetic learning is the hardest bunch to teach in a traditional setting. This learning is about movement–touching, feeling, and moving through knowledge, which requires space and opportunity that many traditional classrooms do not allow for.

Kinesthetic learning benefits from students trying something, watching it fail, and taking that knowledge forward. While this can be difficult logistically with a large class, implementing kinesthetic strategies will not just help a few kids, but your own approach to how students learn.

4. There Are Seven Learning Styles

How exactly “learning styles” should be used depends on who you speak to. It is true that learning styles are among the most misunderstood facets of modern education. It isn’t true that there are “kinesthetic learners,” but is is true that there is “kinesthetic learning.” Key difference.

Taken from Learning Styles Online.

  1. Visual: Using sight
  2. Auditory: Using songs or rhythms
  3. Verbal: Speaking out loud the information
  4. Kinesthetic: Using touch and taste to explore the information
  5. Logical: A more mathematical approach to concepts
  6. Interpersonal: Learning in groups
  7. Intrapersonal: Learning alone

5. Make It Relevant

Bored students

Information is only stored permanently when it relates to day-to-day living. For example, math concepts must be reinforced in real life examples or the student will have no reason to absorb the information beyond the exam.

History is one of the more difficult subjects to bring into the present, since it mainly deals with past events, dates, and people. Finding strategies to bring it to life will help with learning.

As much as possible, history should be experienced through first-hand accounts, museums, field trips and other enrichment activities.

6. Failure Is a Fabulous Teacher

People learn from failure. In fact, ask any major successful person what helped them and usually it will involve a story that harkens back to a big “mess-up”. Failure teaches even better than a perfect score on a test.

Classic grading systems don’t help with this theory, as grades have become inflated, feared, and used as judge and jury about who learned what. Contrary to popular belief, learning from failure is anything but easy. It’s not just about “reflecting” upon what you did.

If you’d like to read about failure and learning, check out this Harvard Business Review article – the article is mainly about organizations but its lesson apply as much to classrooms.

7. Integrate The Curriculum

Rather than keeping each subject separate, curriculums that use thematic units work well to blend knowledge together in a way that is useful and memorable.

For example, a unit on Egyptian history could incorporate history lessons, a unit on linguistics and language (with the hieroglyphics), a science unit (physics and the building of the pyramids), a writing unit (a report on a child’s favorite Egyptian monument), and reading a book about the ancient culture.

8. Define “Learning”

The word “learn” has various definitions. In the classroom, it can be the ability to spout back facts and information on a test. While this is one form of learning, there are other forms of learning that are just as important. Taken from Route Ledge Education:

  • Memorization
  • Acquiring facts or procedures
  • Understanding reality
  • Making sense of the world

9. Care For Introverts

When Susan Cain released her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, earlier this year, it drew a lot of attention onto an important topic: introversion vs extraversion. The debate, of course, reached the classroom and according to an Edweek article, teachers might be against their introverted students.

Are you?

It’s easy to assume that “group work” is always the best approach. That students who raise their hands are attentive. And that students who prefer to work alone are loners. All of which, are not necessarily true.

10. Create Space

Lecture hall

This is a psychological and logistical suggestion. Creativity is the birthplace of true learning, where a student can initiate thoughts, ideas, problems, and make connections between concepts.

Creativity requires the activation of the right side of the brain. Space allows the opportunity for creativity to ignite. Logistically, give students a place to stretch out, move away from a desk, or gaze at the sky outside. In the context of a lesson, allow for brainstorming sessions. Leave gaps in the order so students can create their own projects using the facts and theories in the lesson.

A teacher enables a student to learn when he or she becomes a quiet mentor on the sidelines, rather than the dictator of every move or step.

11. Brief And Organized “Bites”

When a person wants to memorize a phone number, they divide the digits into easy to remember patterns.

This is because the brain struggles to hold onto a long list of numbers, but can do so when they are organized meaningfully. The same principle applies to lectures. A 30-minute lecture that is not structured with categories, or organized into easy-to-recall bullets, will not be as effective.

Using another example, the media produces the news in sound bytes because they know they only have a small window of time in which to grab a person’s attention; teachers would do well to study the marketing techniques of media in order to assemble information that is retainable.

12. Use Several Different Angles

For example, if a science teacher is lecturing on photosynthesis, the students will benefit from hitting the same concept at different angles.

First, the teacher explains the overarching concept. This provides framework and context. Second, he explores each part of the process in greater detail. Third, he explains the whole process again, this time encouraging students to ask questions. Fourth, he asks the students to explain it back to him.

Finally, he takes the process and inserts it into a relevant everyday situation that stretches the students to apply the information in a real life example. As he reinforces the concept with different angles, the brain is better able to organize the information. Trying to hit all of the points in one explanation will overwhelm most students.

13. Proper Method For The Material

In the quest for “deeper” learning, some professors might dismiss the concept of shallow learning; the simple recall of theories, facts, and rules. However there is some validity to rote memorization and the ability to regurgitate rules and facts, depending on the information.

For example, to learn the multiplication tables from 0-12, shallow learning is helpful (flash cards, timed quizzes, etc.). However, implementing this technique for a history lesson will not serve the subject matter.

A student may know all the dates of important world wars, but without understanding the social themes and lessons learned from these atrocities, have they really absorbed the importance of studying history?

14. Use Technology


Never before in human history has there been such unparalleled access to knowledge and information. With the tap of a tablet or smartphone, a student can get instant answers to questions that used to mean a trip to the library’s dusty encyclopedia section.

This means that memorization is no longer as necessary as it once was 100 years ago. Oral traditions and the passing along of information verbally are nearly extinct. Rather than resist the advance of technology, teachers can take the opportunity to go deeper with students, since they do not have to waste time trying to drill facts that are a fingertip away.

Rather, explore themes, study deeper sociological issues, teach the art of invention and creativity, discover the philosophy of critical thinking, and encourage innovation.

15. Let Them Teach

One of the most effective methods for absorbing knowledge is to teach the knowledge back to another. Provide students with ample opportunity to give lectures, presentations, and develop lesson plans of their own.

Teachers can instruct students to create a lesson plan for a much younger child, even if the concept is difficult. This forces students to simplify the theory, find relatable stories and real life examples, and deconstruct the concepts into bite size pieces.

16. Create Hunger And Curiosity

When students are interested in a subject, their ability to learn greatly increases. They have more focus, tenacity, initiative, engagement, and investment in the material. Teachers can give students the freedom to choose their own topics, which enhances a class that may be stuck in a rut or lacking motivation.

Learning how to whet a student’s appetite for information sets them up to go after the answer with a sense of hunger.

17. Brainstorming Not Always Effective

The age old saying, “Two heads are better than one,” is very true. Brainstorming is thought to be the birthplace of profound ideas.

But new studies suggest that that may not be true. Brainstorming introduces groupthink – a psychological phenomenon where the group forms its own beliefs – and when it doesn’t, the most charismatic individual tend to take over.

In fact, Jeremy Dean of Psyblog wrote about the subject,

“… Why not just send people off individually to generate ideas if this is more efficient? The answer is because of its ability to build consensus by giving participants the feeling of involvement in the process. People who have participated in the creative stage are likely to be more motivated to carry out the group’s decision.

In other words, groups are not where ideas are born. Groups are where ideas are evaluated.

18. Forming Habits

Psychologists agree that it takes approximately 30 days for a new habit to form. Parents who are teaching children a new routine (like brushing their own teeth) have to help their child for at least 30 consecutive days before the brain turns to “auto-pilot”.

This is the point at which it becomes a regular habit.

In learning, the same concept applies. Teachers can explain to students the importance of daily study rather than cramming information the night before. The small, incremental, and daily rehearsing of information paves a path in the brain that remains permanently.

Study habits can become regular with guided encouragement to keep going while the brain catches up to the new norm.

19. Learning Feedback Matters

In the same way that failure stretches a person, learning feedback is crucial to how students learn. When they can understand their strengths and weaknesses, accept and receive constructive criticism, and be redirected to the areas that need assistance, the overall process of learning is enhanced.

That much you probably already know.

But studies have shown that when you give feedback matters just as much as what feedback you give. Imagine taking a pill now and being able to see its effect in 5 years vs in 24 hours.

20. Teach How To Learn

“Learning” is an abstract concept to many. By helping students understand the art of learning, the techniques of learning, as well as the different learning styles, they will be empowered by the process. It can be discouraging when a new topic or theory is evasive or difficult.

Students who understand how to learn will have more patience with themselves and others as they grasp new material.