An article in the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly on what makes great teachers revived my spirit a bit. After reading the article, I realized that growing up I thought of my best teachers as magical beings, as if they had possessed something we didn’t and they were willing to pass that magic on to us. I know. I had a heavy infatuation with teachers as a kid. So I am biased. And now, I am a high school English teacher. So there is that.
Obviously, good teachers are not superheroes.
They have foibles just like the rest of us. But, we have to stop thinking that “good teaching” is some mystery that lies in the realm of the unknown. As if the skill of teaching is an intangible thing that cannot be taught. There are qualities that one can detect in a teacher. When you meet a good teacher you realize they are never satisfied. Good teachers say stuff like this to visitors to their classroom: "' You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you — I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.'" Good teachers are constantly re-evaluating their methods and constantly looking for ways to make the learning environment better.
- Good teachers “avidly recruit students and other teachers into the process.” I know this to be true. Good teachers create a vibe that sends the message: “let’s be a part of this.”
- Good teachers maintain focus and ensure that everything they do in the classroom contributes to the learning process. I chuckle at this sign of a good teacher because it reminds me of a teacher I had who would always use every opportunity as a learning moment, to such an extent that we as students were not always aware of it. We might be collecting cool quotes to put into our notebooks, not realizing he was teaching us how to be better researchers.
- Good teachers plan exhaustively and purposefully, planning backward from the desired goal. Yes, I agree this is a good sign of a great teacher. They have broad goals they want their students to reach and make sure every lesson somehow inches toward that goal. The work is in the details. It takes a mammoth amount of creative energy to accomplish this feat.
- Good teachers seem not to complain about the system, but work relentlessly despite the combined efforts of budget, poverty, and budgetary shortcomings. The converse of this is those good teachers often are ground down by bureaucracy and quit due to burnout.
Here is a different video than what I originally had seen on the Atlantic's web site on the "Manager Teacher" (a model I would like to emulate). The original video was taken down and I cannot find it, but this video is sufficient for what I want to showcase. Notice two things: how the teacher has the students' full attention (that did not come out of thin air) and how from the beginning she demands from students to illustrate their understanding of what they need to do. But she is concise and she uses "economy of language" — and then the students get to work!