SHERIDAN — Excellent teachers can make an impact with far-reaching positive consequences. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to education. Different teachers have different approaches depending on personality, age, grade level and subject matter.

So, what makes a great instructor?

The Sheridan Press spoke with administrators, teachers and students to gain insight.

Nearly everyone mentioned the importance of connecting with students, having a firm handle on subject matter and working collaboratively.

Tongue River Elementary School principal Annie Griffin said enthusiasm for students is vital.

“It’s a gift to spend time with kids, and I’m looking for that passion,” Griffin said. “…If I have a relationship with this child and they know that I truly value them as a human, then they’re going to want to work hard.”

When talking to prospective instructors, Griffin asks how they develop relationships with students, families and colleagues. She said selecting the proper hire is a key aspect of her job.

“As a principal, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to put the right person in front of the kids, because it’s a big deal,” Griffin said. “They have the ability to make an amazing impact on children’s lives.”

Most people said relationship-building is an innate skill that is difficult for teachers to develop.

Sheridan County School District 2 assistant superintendent Scott Stults said teachers can learn how to become a better instructor in content areas, but the ability to form connections is more challenging to learn.

During interviews for open teaching positions, SCSD2 often has applicants instruct a group of students for 30 minutes to gain a better sense of the candidate’s ability to connect.

“That’s where that innate ability comes out,” Stults said. “Students are extremely perceptive, whether they’re kindergartners or seniors in high school … to the persona of the individual that is teaching them, and they can discern whether this is actually real and authentic or whether it’s a show.”

Sheridan High School math teacher Tim Daniels agreed. He said some teachers have a natural ability to build relationships, while others need to work at it.

“It takes time to develop that sometimes, and to be honest, I don’t know if some teachers ever get that piece of it,” Daniels said.

Teachers and administrators mentioned that students know almost immediately if an instructor cares about them. Indeed, Ciara Johnson, SHS class of 2019 graduate and future Sheridan College student, said she can tell how much teachers care within the first week of class.

Johnson also said relatability is crucial. It can go a long way toward strengthening relationships if an instructor appreciates a student’s perspective.

“Some teachers just don’t do that and are a little bit hard to talk to because you’re like, ‘They won’t understand this,’” Johnson said. “…Other teachers are like, ‘Yeah, I totally get that. I remember having to go through that. We can work this out.’”

Stults said also content knowledge is important but not near the top of the priority list. Teachers must know the material they are instructing, but the ability to have students care about learning that topic is more vital.

“We can teach that (content knowledge), just like you can teach a coach the Xs and Os,” Stults said. “You can’t teach them how to work with kids and how to individualize that in a way that you’re reaching every kid.”

Sheridan County School District 1 superintendent Pete Kilbride agreed. He said a teacher can know all of the subject materials, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if he or she can’t form a connection with students.

Content expertise becomes more important as grade levels increase. Leah Barrett, Sheridan College vice president of student affairs, said the best college instructors applied their skills and experiences from real life into the classroom. 

Barrett’s favorite teachers explained information so that students could easily understand the reasoning behind it while also providing pupils with similar opportunities.

“It’s about having the content knowledge and then understanding how to engage students in their own learning,” Barrett said.

She also said setting expectations on the first day is crucial. 

“Engaging the student in understanding their responsibility for learning,” Barrett said. “…Students are successful in their courses when the instructor sets them up for success.”

Kilbride said collaborating with other instructors is vital, perhaps now more than ever. When he started teaching in the early 1990s, a teacher working in isolation was fairly common. Now, working solely by oneself isn’t as effective.

Daniels agreed and said good teachers have always collaborated, but it is more commonplace now.

Holy Name Catholic School principal Mary Margaret Legler said she knows almost right away if a potential teacher is passionate about teaching and can work well with their coworkers.

As the leader of a Catholic school, Legler said a teacher should be someone who feels called to serve God by teaching children.

“It’s more of a mission than it is a job,” Legler said. “…You can teach somebody the nuts and bolts about teaching, but unless they have a heart of service, then they don’t belong near the classroom.”

Other important aspects of teaching include empathy, which Kilbride said helps teachers figure out the best ways to instruct students from diverse upbringings.

“It’s recognizing that this child may not have had the same advantages as the kid sitting next to them, and so I’m going to have to work with that child in a little different way,” Kilbride said. “…They come in all shapes and sizes, and they come from all kinds of different backgrounds. There are some kids that are easier to teach than others, but we say we’re going to teach them all, and we mean it.”

Kilbride mentioned that when he is looking to hire a new instructor, resumes, letters of recommendation and references look very similar, so the determining factor is often the quality of the person’s character.

“I want to make sure that you’re a good person,” Kilbride said. “I want to know that you understand that you’re teaching people first, not your content.”

SHS English teacher Carol Stewart said acknowledging the strengths of students early is crucial.

“If you begin by noticing something a student did really, really well, it’s just so amazingly powerful,” Stewart said. “…They’re willing to be a little more vulnerable and talk with you and work with you on what they might do better.”

Sheridan County School District 3 superintendent Charles Auzqui said a good teacher is energetic and holds students accountable in a respectful manner.

Auzqui also said a great teacher puts in extra time to differentiate instruction for each student, something that can entail significant additional work.

“Quality teachers challenge kids on a daily basis,” Auzqui said. “They can individualize instruction for all levels of kids in their classroom, so it’s a very mentally taxing profession.”

Stults agreed, noting that improvement entails a year-round process.

“This is not a nine-month job,” Stults said. “Teachers are teaching and working on their craft 12 months a year.”

The keys to successful instruction differ at various levels, but passion for education and working with others apply universally. If teachers have those qualities along with content expertise, they can make a significant impact on the lives of students.