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What makes a good teacher?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: why is it that some people are good teachers and others can’t ever seem to connect with kids? Why is it that some teachers can glide through a classroom, knowing what each kid is doing, noticing who is in trouble, who is bored, who is engaged, while others seem to get flustered if one child needs something unexpected? Why is it that some teachers seem to have an innate sense of when they are being faced with a “teachable moment,” while others will go on and on long after they’ve lost their audience?

First of all, I have a firm belief that there is some possibly unquantifiable quality that makes some people ready to learn to be a teacher. Call it inspiration or personality type or whatever, but some people just have the right sense of kids. People who don’t have this sense, I think, can learn to be adequate teachers. But the great teachers all have a quality that they bring to the job that training can’t create.

Perhaps one aspect of this unquantifiable quality is believing that you have something to offer your students. One teacher I’m familiar with always seemed so unsure of herself; this insecurity translated to the classroom and kids just didn’t trust that she was a solid quantity in the classroom.

Another aspect is that a good teacher is to a certain extent “a people person,” though I have known great classroom teachers who were not terribly personable outside of class. In class, however, they are totally focused on the kids as individual people. A great preschool teacher, for example, is almost always terse to the point of being dismissive with parents if s/he’s really hooked into what’s happening the classroom. When my son was in preschool, at first this bothered me. But then I got it: a good teacher focuses on the people s/he’s teaching, not their parents.

On the other hand, a good teacher, outside of the classroom, needs to be able to step back and consider the child in a larger way and be able to articulate that to the parents. My dream teacher is totally in the moment with my kids, but then later when we’re at a conference or talking on the phone, she can step back and say, you know, I’ve been noticing this about your son, and here’s how I’m altering what I’m doing because of it.

Good teachers that work with groups of kids also need to be able to have a sense of the group. Recently I was at a science camp with my kids and I was chatting with the teacher. The kids were playing a game of tag with the counselors, but the teacher had half an eye on them while we were talking. He broke our conversation short, saying, I can feel that the kids are getting ready to sit down and learn something. And they were. And they did.

In reality, there’s no way for a good teacher to be the best teacher for everyone, but he really needs to try. I have seen teachers in action who were just fabulous with a certain subset of their students, but they let the others just follow along as they could. A teacher needs to recognize that some kids will be hooked in visually, some aurally. Some might need a physical connection. My daughter, for example, is much more likely to listen to an adult who pauses long enough to touch her and wait for eye contact before she speaks. It’s a small thing, but a teacher who gets that is more likely to reach her.

And as a teacher’s career progresses, I think the overwhelming challenge is for a teacher to consider each new classroom of kids a new beginning, a separate journey that she is excited to take with each kid. When I was in my twenties I had a conversation that has stuck with me. I was talking to a woman in her fifties who had been teaching the same grade for thirty years. She was telling me how much she loved it, and how people seemed amazed that she still loved it so much. She said to me, “The great joy in my life is teaching kids to read. Every single time a child learns to read, it’s completely new to me. It’s a miracle that I help happen.”

I don’t know why this has stuck with me so strongly, but perhaps I just felt its truth and its power. My children and I have been the recipients of way too much half-baked education. Teaching is not a job for the lazy, the uninspired, the people who don’t want to take their work home with them. It’s a commitment to changing a child’s life, which is almost as big a commitment as creating that child’s life in the first place.

Posted in Education.

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