What makes a teacher "great"? Insights from the book, "Teach Like a Champion"

A few years ago I blogged at another resource site about the highlights I gleaned from the book, "Teach Like a Champion."  I'm posting many of those insights here in this thread and welcome your comments.

To arrive at his conclusions, author Doug Lemov spent thousands of hours observing, interviewing, and videotaping teachers in public schools who were acclaimed for their skill by their peers and confirmed by Lemov's observations. 

Below I've condensed his finding that seem to especially apply to Sunday School. Some of his conclusions are obvious, some are challenging, and many are sharper than a two-edged sword.

~Neil MacQueen for rotation.org



Great Teachers have “The Joy Factor” 

They offer up their lessons with generous amounts of joy, energy, fun, and humor. This includes creative teaching methods (drama, song, dance, games).

Great Teachers Explain Everything

Great Teachers explain the day’s objectives, what they want the students to learn, and how the students will be better upon learning it!  Neil Notes: I often recommend teachers do this at the beginning of the class… outlining the lesson, and telling the students what I hope they’ll learn, -rather than treating it like a secret.

Great Teachers Normalize Mistakes

Great Teachers don’t make students feel bad for getting it wrong or messing up an activity. They work with the student to get it right. (How many times in a class did you get something wrong and the teacher said, “No, that’s wrong, does anyone ELSE have the right answer?”  Great teachers work with the student who got it wrong to get it right.) And Great Teachers use humor (not sarcasm) to reduce anxiety.

“Great Teacher Set and Maintain Expectations of Good Behavior”

 In Brief:  It’s all about being consistent, and non-adversarial.

According to Lemov's research...

Great Teachers demand 100% compliance. If one student is allowed to act-out, others follow. It can create a “toxic culture” in which some believe “only the good students need to…”   Ignoring misbehavior will invite more of it.

Intervention should be fast, non-personal, and instructive.  Example: “I need everyone reading along, book in hand.”  Rather than, “John, you’re not paying attention."

Great Teachers use firm but calm tones and words. They tell the student “what to do” rather than asking them to “stop doing” something.  Schools spend too much time on “what not to do” -leaving the students wondering WHAT to do.  Some students who appear to be defiant are simply incompetent at doing and need to be instructed.

Neil comments:  In Sunday School, we don’t have “grading leverage” over our students and can’t “send them to the office”. Yet we all have to deal with kids who act out. Over the years I’ve tried different things to deal with certain students. One of the worst students I’ve had to deal with was the child of the Director. His disobedience was rooted in his attention deficit and social problems, in addition to being dragged in early and having to leave late every Sunday. His father was aghast at my report of his son’s behavior and started coming to class with him. That helped a lot, probably because it let the child know I was going to do something about bad behavior, but also because it started a conversation between son and father.

I once sent a 14-year-old out of class …and then had to deal with his distraught mother who complained to the church leadership. Basically, she was saying that I should sacrifice the rest of the students by ignoring her recalcitrant son. I simply refused to have him in my class unless his parent guaranteed his behavior.  …and it worked.  

In other more typical situations, it REALLY HELPS to have a classroom assistant who can sit with the problem child, or take them out of the room and go sit somewhere boring. This doesn’t always help the problem child, but it DOES help the other students!  …and that’s important.

I believe in the parable of the lost sheep, but even Jesus made sure the 99 were safe before he went out to find the one.

Great Teachers establish “strong voice” control by:

  • Using an Economy of Words. Being specific, instructive and clear about what to do.
  • Making sure that when they speak important words, they are not competing with other noise or conversations.
  • Not engaging in conversation with a student’s explanation for poor behavior. Their excuse for poking another student is irrelevant.
  • Squaring Up and Standing Still.  Your non-verbal posture is a powerful signal of your seriousness and non-threatening but firmness.
  • Quiet Power.  Speaking at normal volume so that students have to listen.  Loud and fast signals anger to many children.


Great Teachers use their body language to signal and cue students.

Great Teachers have a number of “formal teaching poses” and movements which signal to the students that what you are saying is important, or things are about to change, or you are listening carefully, or you are not thrilled with a response or action. Students learn to "read" this language and adjust their behavior before it becomes a problem --when the teacher is consistent and when the teacher is READABLE.

Great Teachers move near challenging or difficult students in an unthreatening manner to silently let the student know they are noticed. Great Teachers move toward students as an affirmation to reward them, lift up, highlight.

Great Teachers feel comfortable "acting" in demonstrative ways to illustrate a point, add energy to their lesson activities, and transmit energy to their students.

Great Teachers correct students in a positive and constructive way.

  • Tell students what you want them to do, rather than accusing them of the wrong.
  • Don’t assume the problem is due to ill-will.
  • “Plausible Anonymity” …don’t call out students’ names to correct them, rather say something like “I need everyone following along.”
  • Narrate the positive outcome you are looking for:  “Some of you are not paying attention, okay, now some of you are, I need one more person to pay attention… Okay!”
  • Challenge students to prove what they know (contests) and to take their behavior up a notch.
  • Tell students what you are hoping for… and praise them when they achieve it. 
  • Great Teachers “praise loud and fix soft.”


Great Teachers have a sense of humor.

Great Teachers share their story, their foibles, and their laughter. They use humor to reduce anxiety and make their point.  Great Teachers know the power of a smile.

Great Teachers are still great outside of the classroom.

They make sure to "be friendly" and not continue to "act like the teacher" outside the classroom. They chat with their students and remember details about their students' lives. Great Teachers realize the relationship outside the classroom directly translates into their classroom.

 Registered and Supporting Members 

Don't forget to read
"The 7 Secrets of a Super Sunday School Teacher"
found in Rotation.org's "Paste in My Hair" teacher training forum.

Become a registered (free) or supporting member now.

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