Thursday, September 2, 2010

School Week! What Makes a Teacher Great?!

This week, students return to school across America where much energy and effort is focused on improving public schools and student performance.

Despite recent significant financial awards aimed at these ends, my guess is educational transformation starts with parents, and then teachers.

Teachers appear to be the more controllable variable in this equation. To help parents and students determine whether this year's pedagogues show promise, I decided to reflect and investigate to share traits making teachers great.

Peter Senge, in his Book “The Fifth Discipline” states the key trait distinguishing thriving people and organizations is their ability to learn from their experiences. Creating possibility requires learning from our experiences, rather than being defined and immobilized by them. A great teacher creates this possibility.

Thanksgiving week during my senior year in high school was a pivotal week in my life. My mom was buried the Friday before. She died late that Tuesday following her eight-year battle with melanoma. On Saturday we played Orange High in a football state championship playoff game. On Sunday the senior players took a special SAT make up originally scheduled for Saturday. Then on Thanksgiving we played our traditional rival Millburn High. My mom’s death coincided with the only week of the year when we played two games and took the SAT's.

Thanks to the environment Coach Monica and his staff created, I stayed focused. We beat Orange, led by future NFL star Sam Seale, in the waning minutes of the game. My SAT scores allowed me to be recruited by, and admitted to, the Ivies and Service Academies. We beat Millburn Thanksgiving morning and went on to win our third consecutive championship and undefeated season.

When our season ended Madison's winning streak was 34. We received the Star Ledger Trophy recognizing NJ's top high school football team. To this day, like Hoosiers, we are the only Group II sized school to achieve this recognition. The team needed six more victories to beat the then state record of 39. John Dagon, another captain and our ferocious middle linebacker, and I were named first team all state.

Despite Brown's Coach Anderson professing Brown was a better fit for me than my preferred West Point or Princeton, I missed my mom, Coach Monica, and Madison's special community terribly when I went to Brown. My life transitioned further when my dad remarried one month into my Brown career.

Depressed, I searched Brown's campus my first few semesters for a friendly instructor, administrator, or even staff person, and pulled myself to Barrett Hazeltine's office. Humble, considerate, and friendly, he never forced a solution, but offered support in helping me find my delayed way at Brown.

Multitudes of gifted coaches, teachers, counselors, and professors shaped my transcedence. Three are recognized well beyond their corridors and walls. This article focuses on Barrett, whose name graces Brown University's Teaching Excellence Award.

The following is a condensed version of Barrett's accepting the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Teaching Excellence at Baylor University.

Good teachers are useful.
Why is teaching important? Students are conscious at once of needing to be independent, of wanting to do things themselves, but they are also conscious of how much they don't know, of how much help they need. We, I am speaking as a teacher, meet them at a time when we can be of help, when we can be useful.

We can be useful because we can give our students both the confidence that they can learn (and after learning do) and also the knowledge and the wisdom so this confidence is not a delusion.

Good teachers unveil talent.

Teaching can be thrilling because we get to see students come alive, to realize this poem is meaningful, this environmental analysis is something they can do. I fear I, personally, teach to the bottom of the class - the group for whom education represents high value added, the group that can blossom at a university perhaps because I am so impressed and pleased when the less highly regarded do take off.

Good teachers respect and own their professions’ challenges.

Of course good things do not always happen to those in the bottom of the class and probably the most painful part of the teaching business is making clear what is valid and acceptable and what is not. Teaching can not only be painful, it can also be difficult and risky. One is putting one's reputation on the line every class. We are a profession, like major league athletics, where one is only as good as one's last performance.

Good teachers make students want to learn.

Why is a teacher important? An essential insight for me was that I was not responsible for telling the students everything I knew. I was not even responsible for knowing everything that they might ask me. I was not important to them because of what I knew. They could find out themselves what they needed if they wanted to. The important thing a teacher can do is to make learning significant and possible. We should focus on making students want to learn and trust them to do the rest.

A good teacher represents quality thinking.

A teacher is important because he or she is an advocate for intellectual life. The student, any person in our society, is besieged with choices and advocates for those choices but few advocates duplicate what a faculty member professes. Glancing at a newspaper or evening TV makes it obvious how badly our society needs people of intelligence, confidence and conviction. A good teacher is important also because he or she represents quality thinking. Students need to be able to recognize ideas that are incomplete or inaccurate or insensitive, whether in the popular press or from themselves. The thrill of accomplishment, of learning, is lost when discriminations are not made between high and low quality work. If any idea is respected then nothing is really respected.

Good teachers are committed to their subjects and to integrating balance.
We are good teachers, I believe when we show that our subject is challenging, significant, accessible, when we show that learning is worth doing. We are also good teachers when we show that other facets of life are worthwhile, concern for others, integrity, spiritual life, and a conviction to act on one's belief.

Just as we are representatives of intellectual, moral and spiritual life we are also representatives of our society's culture, what our society appreciates and believes. Technological developments, television, transportation, medical discoveries, to name a few have changed greatly the conditions in which people live, leaving them, in many cases, without a firm sense of what they are and where they came from. The passing on of cultural values is important especially since many of the institutions that give society its stability are presently having difficulty.

Good teachers are like good parents.

Being a parent gave me much insight into what is important in teaching what did I want my own children to become? What should I want for other people's children? I would certainly like them to be intelligent and I would not want them to be ignorant of the arts and of science.

Good teachers foster the desire to meet challenges.
I would like them to be responsible citizens and lead a moral life but most of all I want them to be confident and curious to want to learn, to believe they can learn, to be eager to do new things, to lead a full life. Nothing has happened to a student while in college unless this sense of what is possible has taken hold and a teacher, better than any other mechanism I know, can nurture this sense. I tell my seniors that if they do not feel good about their ability to meet new challenges they have wasted 4 years.

Good teachers are mentors.

One cannot help noting that at most institutions faculty are usually not trained or encouraged to think of themselves as mentors to undergraduates, instructors, yes, mentors not often. Graduate school and the people we meet expect us to be expert in the subject field and rarely explicitly pay attention to the values we profess. We are trained to feel best about ourselves when we have delivered a terribly clear and beautifully organized lecture. We do not always realize that students may often learn more from other things we do perhaps even things we do unconsciously, perhaps especially things we do unconsciously.

Good teachers are dedicated instructors and engage students.

Students do deserve, however, clear and organized class room presentations. A scholarly aspect of our profession is just that to organize and interpret the subject to make student learning more efficient and effective by pointing out fruitful approaches, to show what has worked in the past and what has not. As someone said those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. It is our understanding, even to ask other things. In larger classes one can use devices like questions, votes (when I bring up what seems an important question I ask for a vote and insist that all participate "everybody has to have an opinion on this".)

Good teachers help students discover for themselves.

My lecture outline handouts have blanks where the student is expected to do something complete an argument or a calculation. I move around the lecture room, coming up to a student in, say, the fifth row and soliciting an opinion from her or him. If all else fails in a dull part of a class one can make a minor blunder, an algebraic mistake, for example, and let the class discover it. I try to find excuses to shake hands because a grade school teacher told me touching is reassuring. Someone else told me the only thing really clear from studies of how people learn complex material is that they tend to remember what they discover for themselves. So I try to structure presentations so students can discover the results for themselves and in the process gain confidence. After all, I won't always be there to help.

Good teachers see themselves through their students’ eyes.

How would I, as a student, want to be treated? As a partner in the educational enterprise. It does help to learn names in a big class. Moving away from the lectern or the blackboard tends to reduce the psychological distance. Giving handouts personally to students creates an opportunity to greet them individually. As a symbolic gesture I often ask the class to decide on some administrative procedures, such as what day the assignments will be due. My own style is to try to find a way to praise every student every day but others may not find that comfortable. At the very least the student should be made to feel welcomed in the classroom.

Good teachers avoid harm.

So how does a teacher do harm? By lowering the student's self esteem so he or she feels the material can never be mastered. By not involving the student in the exercise. By not demonstrating that learning is satisfying and worthwhile. By not making the material clear and absorbing. By acting as if he or she does not care to teach.

Good teachers influence.

People who have chosen teaching have chosen a profession with high rewards and high responsibilities. We do affect greatly, for good or bad, the lives of those we teach. Good teaching is something that requires thought and commitment and practice. Too often it has been taken for granted, neither recognized nor studied. Current improvement initiatives will do much to give teaching the attention it must have.

Great parents, leaders, managers, and coaches are good teachers.