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Why You Were Hired: One Division Head’s Definition of Great Teaching

February 7, 2014

What makes a great teacher? How do we perfect our own art and skills? Chris Gunnin, Head of Upper School at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth calls himself, “a student of great teachers”.  Chris attended St. Mark’s grades 6 through 12.  Prior to that he attended public schools in Richardson, TX.

Sharing personal stories about his time as an independent school student Chris spoke about how great teachers:

  • have a vision for students that is greater than the vision students have for themselves,

  • give students the experience of being a part of something greater than themselves,

  • provide their students with a lasting memory of treasured experiences.

In his talk Chris described 12 components  of great teaching that we can all aspire to.

Content Master

Great teachers have to be great content masters.  That does not mean we need to be master lecturers. In our practice we are being called upon to be content curators to our students rather than master lectures. In Chris’s words, “in the past I struggled to be the best lecturer.  Now I can point my students to the best lectures, or better yet, teach our students to find the best lectures themselves.”

Relational Expert

We don’t teach curriculum, we teach students.  How do get inside and capture the heart and mind of a young student? No significant learning occurs without a great relationship.  When Chris has seen faculty struggle, it’s not been with the content work, it’s been with the relationship work.

Teachers are called to do many different things.  They don’t care what we know unless they know we care.  Think of the impact the knowledgeable but uncaring professor in “The Paper Chase” made on the protagonist of that book and film.

Person of Character

Every adult on a K/12 campus is called to be a leader.  We must be people of character.  We must embody the principles of courage, honor and respect.  We are watched by young people at all times.  Who we are is hugely important. The subtext of what we are doing, our modeling for our students is huge.

Life Long Learners

How the world has changed.  Chris talked about how knowledge was scarce.  You could go to your teacher, your encyclopedia, your library.  He spoke about the process of using the card catalogue.  The question asked was “Did you find any sources?”

He spoke about how today the question asked is “how do you make sense of the 3 million sources you have found?”  How do we find time to be lifelong learners ourselves?

Tireless Worker

After all that a teacher does, the world does not recognize how hard we work.  We do 15 months of work in 10 months.  They think we get the summer off! However, we know that teaching is like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t stop when you get tired, you stop when he gets tired. We also know that we must keep the coffee strong and within reach.”

Supportive Colleague and Collaborator

We have to figure out how the world is changing together.  Chris shared powerful stories of collegial camaraderie.

Dignity Agent

“At the center if all conflict is a dignity conflict.” Chris shared an extremely powerful story of a student falling asleep in chapel.  A student fell asleep in chapel when a guest speaker was there.  Instead of chewing out the student, Chris asked the student what was going on and learned that the student had had his wisdom teeth removed that morning and that he was on Vicodin.  We can respect the dignity of our students when we ask them what is going on instead of assuming the worst of them.

Student of Leadership

Schools are increasingly providing opportunities for teachers to be co-learners with students as we study what it means to be a leader.

Chris shared this definition of leadership by Jack Welch. Replace the word leader with teacher and it’s a great definition of teachers.

Jack and Suzy Welch on LinkedIn

Environment Builder

Students, often great students, go through terrible times outside of our schools.  The structure, safety, etc., of our schools often literally save lives.  Our spaces need to be safe spaces for ALL of our students.

Page 196 of Warren Bennis’s Organizing Genius provides terrific examples of building a terrific environment.

Partner with Parents

We can’t say to our families bring us the most precious things in your lives, drop them off at the curb and go away after you write a check for $20,000.  There is no class for independent school teachers dealing with independent school parents.

Rob Evans says 95% of your parents are fine, 5% are tough, that’s why your school administrators get combat pay.  Don’t go it alone with those troublesome parents.

Joy and Hope Promoter

Our media culture promotes the idea that high school and college years should be the happiest days of their lives. In how much of our professional lives do we experience joy? How much of that time are we actively able to promote joy?  We need to model joy for our kids.

Educational Reformer

While a self confessed traditionalist, Gunnin believes that we must be moving forward in terms of our practice.  We’ve been so successful in the old model why must we change? Gunnin has a two year old.  Gunnin wants the teachers of his daughter to be thinking about the skills his daughter will need to be a leader in 2050.

Education Fast Forward(EFF) has published a powerful statement about why school’s must reform.

“Good teachers set off a conversation that students can have with themselves for the rest of their lives. What educators do is holy and heroic.”

Dr. Ned Hallowell

When there is meaningful change and growth, we shift our identities.  Gunnin challenges us to embody each of these 12 characteristics in our practice.


  1. Content Master

  2. Relational Expert

  3. Person of Character

  4. Life Long Learners

  5. Tireless Worker

  6. Supportive Colleague and Collaborator

  7. Dignity Agent

  8. Student of Leadership

  9. Environment Builder

  10. Partner with Parents

  11. Joy and Hope Promoter

  12. Educational Reformer

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