Topic: How to become a good teacher
Everywhere I go, I meet exemplary teachers, and I've been interested in figuring out what makes them so good. What I've discovered is the inherent sameness of good teachers, regardless of the substantial differences between them in terms of style, personality, goals, and pattern of interaction with students. I would go so far as to say that good teachers, in all settings and at all levels, have more in common with each other than any of them may have with their colleagues in comparable positions. It is absolutely true that some people, from the time they are in first grade, know they want to be teachers. For others, the idea to become a teacher can be a sudden insight, or a feeling that ferments for years in some remote corner of their consciousness. Regardless of where the idea comes from, for many, the images associated with becoming a teacher are persuasive.
Words of educator and philosopher Parker Palmer:
‘‘Good teaching isn't about technique. I've asked students around the
country to describe their good teachers to me. Some of them describe people who lecture all the time, some of them describe people who do
little other than facilitate group process, and others describe everything in between. But all of them describe people who have some sort of connective capacity, who connect themselves to their students, their students to each other, and everyone to the subject being studied.
When we talk about the quality of someone's teaching, we address issues of technique, content, and presentation. But we all know people who have tremendous knowledge but fail to communicate it: people who have, on paper, a great lesson, but whose students are bored or frustrated. When we're being honest, we admit that good teaching often has less to do with our knowledge and skills than with the attitude of teacher towards the students, subject, and their work.
Some of the characteristics that good teachers exhibit:
Many excellent teachers may possess only some of these traits, and consider others not mentioned to be just as valuable. The characteristics detailed here may be viewed simply as a selection of tools that allow teachers to create and sustain connectivity in their classrooms.
• have a sense of purpose; • have expectations of success for all students; • tolerate ambiguity; • demonstrate a willingness to adapt and change to meet student needs;
• are comfortable with not knowing; • reflect on their work; • learn from a variety of models; • enjoy their work and their students; Make no mistakes;
Sense of purpose:
As a teacher you should know what your students expect, and you make plans to meet those expectations. You, too, have expectations about what happens in your classroom, based on the goals you're trying to achieve. If you want to prepare your students for employment, you expect punctuality and good attendance.
Expectations of success for all students:
This is the great paradox of teaching. At all levels, but especially in adult education, there are simply too many factors in student’s lives for a teacher to be able to guarantee success to all. At the same time, if teacher gives up on the students, adopting a fatalistic, "it's out of my hands" attitude, students will sense a lack of commitment and tune will out. The happy medium can be achieved with a simple question: Did I do everything that I could in this class, this time, to meet the needs of all
my students, assuming that complete success was possible? As long as you can answer in the affirmative, you're creating a climate for success.
Good teachers know how to live with ambiguity:
One of the greatest challenges of teaching stems from the lack of immediate, accurate feedback. The student who walks out of your classroom shaking his head and muttering under his breath about algebra may burst into class tomorrow proclaiming his triumph over math, and thanking you for the previous lesson. There is no way to predict precisely what the long-term results of our work will be. But if we have a sense of purpose informing our choice of strategies and materials, and we try to cultivate expectations of success for all our students, we will be less likely to dwell on that unpredictability, choosing instead to focus on what we can control, and trusting that thoughtful preparation makes good outcomes more likely than bad ones.
Adapt and change to meet student needs:
Can a teacher really claim to have taught a class in geography if no one learned any of the concepts in the lesson from the presentation? If none of the students ever pick up a book outside of the classroom, has teacher really taught them to be better readers? Teachers don't always think about these issues, but they are at the heart of effective teaching. A great lesson plan and a great lesson are two entirely different things; it's nice when one follows the other, but we all know that it doesn't always work out the way. We teach so, that students will learn, and
when learning doesn't happen, we need to be willing to devise new strategies, think in new ways, and generally do anything possible to revive the learning process. It's wonderful to have a good methodology, but it's better to have students engaged in good learning.
This may be the only infallible (perfect), absolute characteristic of all good teachers, because without it, none of the other traits we've discussed can fully mature. Good teachers routinely think about and reflect on their classes, their students, their methods, and their materials. They compare and contrast, draw parallels and distinctions, review, remove and restore. Failing to observe what happens in our classes on a daily basis disconnects us from the teaching and learning process, because it's impossible to create connectivity if you've disconnected yourself.
Comfortable even with not knowing:
If a teacher reflects honestly and thoughtfully on what happens in his classes, he will often find dilemmas that he cannot immediately resolve and questions that he cannot answer. In the same way, if teacher can live for a little while with a question, think and observe, and let an answer develop in response to the specific situation he faces.
Enjoy work and their students:
This may seem obvious, but it's easy to lose sight of its importance. Teachers who enjoy their work and their students are motivated, energized, and creative. The opposite of enjoyment is burnout-the state where no one and nothing can spark any interest. Notice, too, that enjoying the work and students may be two different things. Focusing too much on content may make students feel off the point, misunderstood, or left out. Focusing exclusively on students, without an eye to content, may make students feel understood and appreciated, but may not help them to achieve their educational goals as quickly as they'd like. Achieving a balance between the two extremes takes time and attention; it demands that we observe closely, evaluate carefully, and act on our findings.
Make no mistake:
Teaching is like no other profession. As a teacher, you will wear many hats. You will, to name but of a few of the roles teachers assume in carrying out their duties, be a communicator, a disciplinarian, a conveyor of information, an evaluator, a classroom manager, a counselor, a member of many teams and groups, a decision-maker, a role-model, and a surrogate parent. Each of these roles requires practice and skills that are often not taught in teacher preparation programs. Not all who want to be teachers should invest the time and resources in teacher training or teacher preparation programs if they do not have the appropriate temperament, skills, and personality. Teaching has a very high attrition rate. Depending on whose statistics you trust, around forty percent of new teachers leave teaching within
the first five years. It is obviously not what they thought it would be. One thing for sure, it's about more than loving kids.
As a teacher, your day doesn't necessarily end when the school bell rings. If you're conscientious, you will be involved in after school meetings, committees, assisting students, grading homework, assignments, projects, and calling parents. All these demand some sacrifice of your personal time. If you're committed to excellence as a teacher, it's a sacrifice you can live with. If not, you will be uncomfortable at best.
Teacher training and teacher preparation programs exist in every state, as well as in various forms of on-line courses and degree programs, and the requirements vary. Programs like Centenary College adult studies offer flexible schedules, different than regular degree programs. You will have many options from which to choose. Choose wisely. My own advice is to select a program that offers a rich and solid foundation of courses, regardless of whether you intend to teach at the elementary, middle school, or high school level. I believe that no teacher education program, including the one in which I teach, can actually teach you how to teach. Rather, what we do is get you ready to learn how to teach, and that takes place on the job. My advice is to choose a program that offers a rich balance of subject matter content courses and pedagogy, including clinical experience in all its forms. You are learning both skills and understandings in any teacher education program. Practice those skills as perfectly as possible, and strive each day to deepen your understandings of the concepts, theories and generalizations that you
encounter. By doing so, you will build a solid foundation for learning how to teach once you become employed, and, you will be a better teacher.
From my own teaching experience and from discussions and teaching many hundreds of teachers and thousands of teacher education students, there emerge common threads of understanding and skill that good teachers weave into an effective personal style of teaching.
Teachers have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, patience and compassion. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, You reconcile all being in the world.
Assess your own knowledge and values in terms of your thoughts about the following:
are good at explaining things. Do you like to explain how something works, or how something happened? Being comfortable with explaining content to students is an essential skill for teachers, regardless of the subject or grade level.
keep their cool. There will be times when you will be tempted to scream or yell at your students, other teachers, parents, administrators, and so on. Good teachers are able to successfully resist this urge.
have a sense of humor. Research has consistently shown that good teachers have a sense of humor, and that they are able to use humor as part of their teaching methods. Humor, used properly, can be a powerful addition to any lesson.
like people, especially students in the age range in which they intend to teach. Most teachers choose an area of specialization such as elementary education, special education, secondary education, or higher education because they have a temperament for students in those age ranges. If you are not comfortable working with young children, don't major in elementary education!
are inherently fair-minded. They are able to assess students on the basis of performance, not on the students' personal qualities.
have "common sense." It may sound a bit corny, but good teachers are practical. They can size up a situation quickly and make an appropriate decision. Whether managing a classroom, leading students on a field trip, seamlessly shifting from one instructional procedure to another, assigning detentions, supervising an intern, or dealing with policy and curriculum issues in the school, there is no substitute for common sense.
have a command of the content they teach. For elementary school teachers, that means having knowledge of a broad range of content in sufficient depth to convey the information in meaningful ways to the students. For secondary school teachers, it usually means having an indepth command of one or two specific content areas such as mathematics or biology.
set high expectations for their students and hold the students to those expectations. If you are thinking about becoming a teacher, you should set high expectations for yourself, and demand excellence not only of yourself, but your students as well.
are detail oriented. If you are a disorganized person in your private life, you will find that teaching will probably be uncomfortable for you. At the very least, teachers must be organized in their professional and
teaching duties. If you're not organized and are not detail oriented, teaching may not be the best choice of a profession for you.
are good managers of time. Time is one of the most precious resources a teacher has. Good teachers have learned to use this resource wisely.
can lead or follow, as the situation demands. Sometimes, teachers must be members of committees, groups, councils, and task forces. Having the temperament to function in these capacities is extremely important. At other times, teachers assume leadership roles. Be sure you are comfortable being a leader or a follower, because sooner or later, you will be called on to function in those roles.
don't take things for granted. This applies to everything, from selecting a college or school of education to filing papers for certification. Good follow-through habits should be cultivated throughout life, but they are never more important than during your teacher education program. Read the catalog, know the rules, be aware of prerequisites and meet deadlines. In one sense, you don't learn to teach by getting a degree and becoming certified. You learn to teach in much the same way you learned to drive -- by driving. You learn to teach by teaching, by making mistakes, learning from them and improving. The purpose of a teacher education program is to get you as ready as possible to learn how to teach by subjecting you to a variety of methods and experiences that have a basis in tradition and research.
have some "hard bark" on them. Take it from me as a teacher in both public schools and at the university level, that you need some hard bark in order to survive, let alone thrive. To illustrate the point, here is an excerpt from an ADPRIMA page that discusses the subject in more detail:
John Russell, the name of the character played by Paul Newman in the 1967 movie "Hombre," was told, in the latter part of the film by a man he had just shot in order to protect a group of innocent, yet cowardly people, "Mister, you've got some hard bark on you." Indeed he did, because he was both physically tough and tough minded. He was also realistic, honest, fair, and understood that sometimes doing the right thing involves risk. There is a lesson in all of this for education students.
Without a doubt, young men and women entering the teaching profession today need to have some "hard bark" on them. If they don't, the small wounds inflicted by dealing with the everyday problems of teaching, disciplining, planning, counseling, dealing with administrators, colleagues, parents, and so on, mount up. If they're easily wounded by disappointment, rudeness, and even unfairness, they won't last because these things happen, and nothing will change that. Reflecting back on my won experiences, I can say reservation, that the most difficult aspect of teaching was not the students, the subject matter, or the parents. It was the teachers. To be a good teacher, you have to be able to deal with the incessant politics and interpersonal issues of your
colleagues. Trust me, if you don't have some "hard bark" on you, the stress of this aspect of teaching can easily wear you down to a nub in short order.
All of these qualities define some of the characteristics of good teachers. If it is not your goal to become a good teacher at the very least, perhaps thinking about the above will help you see other career alternatives. A good idea, when first making such a decision, is to talk to teachers. Find out what they do, and what led them into teaching. Do a personal inventory of your own values, personality, preferences and goals. But, whatever you do, don't go into teaching simply because you love kids!
Set the example. Remember that you are the teacher. It is important for you to be like a "superhero" figure in their eyes. Remember that your students look up to you and will thus try to mimic your dispositions. If you are rude or inappropriate, they will have an inappropriate model for their behavior. It is vital that students see you as a person with confidence, so that they follow your lead, and feel comfortable trusting you. Students, of all ages, need someone they can lean on, look up to, and be able to trust. Have well-defined consequences. Set specific consequences for breaking the rules. Decide what those consequences are and then
implement them consistently. Your consequences should follow a procedure that starts with a non-verbal signal (such as just looking at the student), to a verbal signal (asking the student to please stop talking), to a verbal warning (if this continues there will be consequences), to the implementation of the consequence. The consequences are up to you and depend on the program of the school. Many schools have a detention system (students do despise detentions), or perhaps writing lines, or sitting away from other students.3Be compassionate. Great educators form strong relationships with their students and show that they care about them as people. They are warm, accessible, enthusiastic and caring. Be open to staying at school after-hours to help students or get involved in school-wide committees and activities, and they demonstrate a commitment to the school.4Set some ground rules. You should have 3-5 rules that the students know about. These are the rules that, when broken, are subject to the consequence scheme outlined above. Try allowing the class to suggest the ground rules: have a class discussion and write ideas, it makes the class feel they are listened to and that you care about their opinions and input while also setting some groundwork that they will feel loyal to because they've made it. Act as a mediator to make sure that the rules decided upon are appropriate. Some may be, for instance, be quiet when the teacher is talking, respect each other, and finish the homework and class work. Lesson Planning1Have an objective. When you are planning a lesson, the most vital part is the objective. What do you want your students to take away from the lesson? If the objective is powerful, deep, and reflects what you really want students to learn, it will be reflected in
the lesson.2Have a solid plan for your lessons. Each and every lesson should be divided into three simple parts that reflect your objective. First should be the "lecture" part of the lesson. This is where you teach something new to the class (of course allowing for questions or comments when applicable).Dedicate the second part of class to something that involves a collective group work element where students can work with whoever they want. Near the end of this part, you can have a discussion session where groups voice their findings/opinions, and give marks for adequate participation.The final part of every lesson should be where the students return to their seats and work QUIETLY on one final task, such as answering specific questions written on the board, or drawing a picture related to something they learned that lesson. The students should only talk to you (if they have a question about what/how to do it) or the person sitting directly next to them. This is the wind-down part where students get a chance to work on and understand the material on their own.3Assign relevant homework. Rather than assigning something different every night, it is wise to assign one or two more substantial assignments on Monday and then collect these assignments on Friday.4Consider giving quizzes. You may want to have a quiz every Friday to assess how well the students are grasping the material. You can judge how well you are teaching by how well the majority of your students perform on the quizzes.
I would like to conclude with a poem by Lao-Tzu, the Chinese scholar to whom the Tao Te Ching is attributed. I have carried a copy of this poem with me for many years, and I find its message both helpful and
challenging. It reminds us that good teaching is not a static state, but a constant process. We have new opportunities to become better teachers every day; good teachers are the ones who seize more opportunities than they miss.