What Makes a Great Teacher

3 minute read

The idea that the U.S. may be facing a potential teacher shortage, or that teachers are consistently undervalued, probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who follows today’s education news. And, as Teacher Appreciation Week begins on Monday, it’s worth remembering that the problem isn’t exactly new.

In the 1960s, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare secretary John Gardner bemoaned the “flight from teaching” that was going on within academia. That comment inspired TIME to take a look at those people who were defying the trend, for a cover story in the May 6, 1966, issue—50 years ago this week.

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The story, which focused on great college professors, profiled 10 men who were exemplars of the profession, and found that great teaching was hard to do but easy to define:

While teaching is a highly personal blend of style, scholarship and attitudes, the qualities of the great teachers of the past are not at all mysterious. Socrates, bearded and bald, gave his name to today’s best seminar style simply by plucking insights out of youthful minds with incisive questions. Aristotle drew upon the illustrative experiences of his reckless youth to inspire other youths to be good; his Lyceum linked research and teaching by analyzing biological specimens. In a medieval age of faith, the unconventional Peter Abelard employed shafts of wit and the theory that “constant questioning is the first key to wisdom” to draw throngs to his school of dialectics near Paris.

…In a sense—computers, films, labs and TV notwithstanding—nothing much has come along in 2,400 years that essentially improves the Socratic pattern of a learned man plus a group of students, but the pattern can work out in sharply varied and instructive styles.

The story, however, doesn’t fully apply to today’s problems. The teaching atmosphere the story addressed was in college only, where pay and prestige weren’t so much of a problem, and all of the teachers in question—in a fact that probably accurately reflected the Ivory Tower of the day—were white men. Another story later that year addressed the teacher shortage in public schools, where pay was low (“the basic problem is that teaching salaries in most public schools are not competitive with jobs in industry and government requiring lesser skills,” the story explained) and prestige was too. (The illustration accompanying that story, perhaps unsurprisingly, was of a woman. Today, the vast majority of schoolteachers are women.)

But while the 1966 cover story didn’t fully capture every side of the decades-long problem getting great teachers into America’s classrooms, the takeaway still holds up: Great teachers, wherever they’re found, deserve to be acknowledged.

And sure enough, many TIME readers wrote in to make sure their favorite teachers got the recognition they deserved. For example:

“I saw your list of teachers, but I didn’t see my teacher’s name,” wrote Bobby McIntosh. “She is the best teacher I have ever had. Her name is Miss McAllister, Grade 3, Crystal Spring, Roanoke, Va.”

Read the full story from 1966, here in the TIME Vault: To Profess With a Passion

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com