I truly hate the present trend of teacher bashing: The belief that all the problems in our country are because teachers have failed us. I hope my past posts on education show that teachers are teaching in a broken system; the system needs to be fixed so that teachers can provide their students what they need to be successful. However, I am not naive enough to think that all teachers are doing the right thing for the right reasons. There are many teachers who need to change dramatically or move on. I hope to encourage that change or make room for the teachers who are truly in education for the right reasons.
What Makes a Great Teacher?
I’ve put a lot of thought into this. Great teachers have different exteriors and subject matters, but the common denominator of all great teachers is their love for learning and their desire to share that love for learning with their students. (Please note that a “love for learning” is not equated with arrogance towards one’s intelligence; an arrogant teacher can be just as disastrous as a teacher who hates children.)
I consider myself a great teacher. I’m not a perfect teacher, but I’m always improving. I remember after being hired at my present school, a teacher on the hiring committee told me that my response to the following question gave me the advantage over the other applicants:
“Is there anything else you want us to know about you?”
I answered: “I love to learn, and I want to instill that love in others; I will be a student and a teacher for the rest of my life because of that fact.”
I didn’t say that because I knew it would get me the job; I said it because it’s true. I get excited about learning new things. I have a great responsibility as a teacher; I have to teach students what they need to be successful. Therefore, I constantly research, read, write, and apply the things I learn to improve my ability to present knowledge to those depending on me. I am a great teacher because I know I don’t know everything, but I care enough about my students to constantly improve my teaching abilities for their benefit. Unfortunately, this is not true for many teachers in our profession; those teachers have the wrong idea about education.
The first and most important question we need to ask ourselves as teachers and what needs to be made clear to parents and administrators is “What is the role of the teacher?” The somewhat misguided perception is that we fill children’s brains with all the answers. That is impossible to accomplish; if it were possible, we would have a country filled with people who have all the answers. A teacher’s role is to be a guide or facilitator to a student’s acquisition of knowledge. I can present information. I can create situations where students get excited about what they are learning, but students have to have the desire to learn instilled in them before they get to school, an attitude that can only come from the student and/or his or her family.
The difference between a teacher who tries to fill students with answers and a facilitator of knowledge is the difference between teaching to the test and preparing students for problem solving. Do parents want teachers who share the answers to final exams with their students so they get A’s on the final, but create students who can’t read and think on their own? Or, do parents want teachers who present information as a tool for self-discovery and a method whereby they learn to think for themselves and become problem solvers? Granted, the latter method may result in students getting B’s and C’s on a test, but what is the end goal of education? Parents and students, lately, seem to want false confidence in intelligence based on an arbitrary grade. However, an A means nothing if the student is not a problem solver; an A is a smoke screen if it doesn’t accurately represent a student who is confident and able to process and apply information correctly.
As a parent, I want my children to become problem solvers. I want them to have confidence in their abilities. My 7-year-old son watched a video on making a double-sided, paper ninja star. He wanted to make one so badly, but he was afraid of making mistakes. With Ian at my side, I made one, following the instructions from the video. He was so excited to watch me make it, proving to him that it was possible. He then wanted me to make him another one. I told him he could do the next one on his own.
He was afraid. “What if I make a mistake, Mom?”
I said, “Then you make a mistake and learn from it. That’s all mistakes are, an opportunity to learn.”
He started to follow the directions on the video. He did everything himself but had trouble with the last step. Instantly, he became discouraged. I showed him how he did everything perfectly but the last step was tricky and showed him how to fix his mistake.
The joy on his face said it all, but then Ian said: “Thanks, Mom! I did it because of you. Because you believed in me.”
This anecdote serves two purposes: 1) As a teacher, I had to care enough about what my student wanted to learn, to learn it myself. I didn’t expect my student to accomplish a task that I myself could not accomplish. By doing it first, I proved to myself and to him that it could be done. And 2) As a parent, I want my son to be taught by teachers who believe in his abilities the way that I do, so that Ian can feel that joy over accomplishing every task on his own. Teachers who spoon feed answers to their students neither trust their own abilities as teachers, nor trust their students’ abilities to solve problems and learn from their mistakes. Imagine how crippling this method of teaching is to a child’s mind.
Teaching my son how to make a double-sided ninja star was easy because he wanted to know how to make one. That’s the key to all learning. Teachers need to create this same want for learning with their students. In order to do this, teachers need to answer this question:
How is my subject matter relevant in the real world?
If teachers can answer that question about their subject matter, then they will be able to motivate most* students to do the work necessary in their classes. If teachers can’t legitimately answer that question, they will lose their students. Teachers need to know, believe, and use the answers they give as well. Everything we teach comes down to a context issue, not a content issue. If students can’t see how content knowledge will affect their futures (which gives them context), they will tune out their education. They need to see education as a hope for their future. Currently, many teachers have answers that are only tied to assessments, which have no bearing on students’ futures.
So what is my point about teachers? Simply stated, if teachers aren’t lovers of knowledge (a forever-student), if teachers can’t extend their subject matter to the real world (creating context for the content), if teachers aren’t ready to admit what they don’t know (humility over arrogance), they will never be able to foster students who value all of those things either.
*I say most because some students are too far into the passive-learning style that has dominated our school system for far too long; even the best teachers won’t be able to reach this type of student—the students who have been taught by teachers who teach to the test or parents who only care about the grade and not the learning. This type of student needs a complete paradigm shift.
What do you think about the role of a teacher? Have you had a great teacher in your life? Does my description of a great teacher fit with your experiences?
My new anthem: I Believe in You