Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What Makes a Great Teacher?

What does it take to be a good teacher? A colleague of mine, Dr. Teri Lesesne, shared a link yesterday that has a great message. You can read it at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/12/19/are-you-a-truly-bad-teacher-heres-how-to-tell/

I went to it thinking it would be one of those fun quizzes where you pick choices and get a quick answer. It is far more thoughtful than that, and I agree with everything included.  When I finished reading, though, I was left to the feeling that there is more to being a great teacher that these important qualities.  Looking back from the vantage of 40 years in education, I tried to remember how many REALLY BAD teachers I have known. I have known some that were less effective than others, or less talented, or even less caring. But as far as REALLY BAD, only one person came to mind. The odd thing is that she possessed, at least in some measure, all the qualities listed in this piece. For starters, she was/is a nice person, a bit eccentric but someone I liked. As for the points in the article:
1.     I believe she liked, or wanted to like, her students. She enjoyed conversing with them one on one.
2.     She did NOT find her subject matter dull. She was in fact passionate about it.
3.     She absolutely knew what she was talking about in her subject area. She was brilliant with a stellar college background and a master’s degree. I found this out because she left her resume in my workroom one time, and because this was clear from talking with her.
4.     Did she ignore a large subset of her students? Well this one is a maybe. The problem was that her students ignored her. There was no real connection.
5.     Was she totally disengaged? No, I don’t think so. She told me that she wanted to and was trying to improve and I took that at face value, though she continued to flounder.

How do I know so much about this one person?  I was asked by my principal to videotape her in her classroom as she delivered instruction. He said the reason was for us to then talk with her about how to improve, but we all knew he was documenting her with in order to eliminate her from our faculty.  What I saw during several visits was distressing and sad. Her students were leveled and at the lower end of the spectrum at that school. They were relatively well behaved while I was there, but there were stories of how out of hand things got at other times. She came in and talked very rapidly, often with her back to the students as she wrote on the chalkboard in barely legible writing. One lesson was about how to write a “compare and contrast paragraph” for the state testing prompt at that time. The example she gave as Athens and Sparta. These students had no idea what she was talking about and could not answer even the simplest of her questions about Greece and history. Still she pressed on. At one point a boy near me began whispering to me urgently. “Please…get me out of this class. My parents complained but (the principal) says no, too many people have gotten out of the class already. I want to learn! I can’t learn in this class!”  I felt so bad for this kid, and did appeal to the principal but don’t remember if it helped. Things culminated much later in the year when a boy shoved her and she stepped backward, ending up half sitting in the trashcan. She couldn’t get out and a kid went for help. She was sent home for the day and when she returned she pretty much drew into herself. She resigned at the end of that year and moved to another state right after that. I felt sorry for her and sorrier for the students, who lost that year’s instruction because their parents were not influential enough to get them out of the class.

 Based on this experience, here are some things I would add
1.     Are you able to communicate with youngsters at the ages of your students? She was spectacularly lacking in this area.
2.     Are you able to maintain order in your classroom? This CAN be learned! I have seen people make great strides. In her case this just didn’t happen which leads to the next question.
3.     Are you a “Yes But” person? I was asked to pass on some tips about classroom management to her. At every suggestion she would say, “Yes but that would not work for me because…”
4.     Can you collaborate with others? There were avenues for help she could have sought. She made ironic jokes about her situation rather than seek ways to improve. She did not have friends among faculty, even though we had an unusually tight knit and supportive group. She was very much a loner. I was probably the closest thing she had to a friend in that school and I was documenting her shortcomings.

Why am I taking the trouble to put all this down? I am not sure but I think it is because I want to point out that teaching is not something that just anyone can do. It requires more than expertise in a subject area. A good teacher cannot be defined by some list of qualifiers composed by people who think they are experts in education because…Hey! They went to school! Teaching is a helping profession, one of the highest of callings. It pains me to see it denigrated as it is today, at all levels from the earliest childhood to post graduate. Teachers and professors bring so more to the profession than most people seem to realize.  One of my Christmas wishes is for people not in the field to return to the general attitude of respect for teachers that was present when I was growing up, and when I started out in education.