I just finished watching the Super Bowl where physically impressive men pounded on each other for the right to be called football champions. On either side of the field there were about a hundred guys each earning at least six figure incomes, if not millions. At the same time, there were teachers all around the country preparing for an early start to another week of guiding and forming the minds that will one day decide the direction of our country and our world. Teaching is perhaps the most underrated and undervalued profession in our society. Nursing may run a close second, but at least in most cases, nurse’s patients realize at the time what a great service they are receiving. For teachers, there is often a delay of years before those that they are helping realize what a great job their teachers have done.It takes a lot of energy to be a teacher; it takes a special person to be a great teacher. As a student in both inner-city public and prestigious private schools as well as a substitute teacher and even a corporate trainer, I have had the opportunity to observe some great teachers at work and believe they share a few attributes in common.
Great teachers have a passion for their profession as if what they do is more of a mission than a job. There are a lot of administrative hurdles, budget restrictions and curriculum guideline challenges that make a teacher’s job tough before they even step in front of a class to begin teaching. A good teacher needs to be armed with a passion for what they have chosen to do in order to handle all of these obstacles and still have the mental and emotional energy to be effective in front of their students.
Love of Learning –
Closely related to a passion for teaching, having a love for learning themselves is a very important trait of good teacher. There is nothing more energizing for a student than having a teacher who demonstrates that they are still willing to learn themselves. It is a rare person who can completely answer off the top of their head every question that a student asks them. Rather than ignoring a question or pushing it aside when they don’t know the complete answer, a good teacher will engage the student by showing them that they are genuinely interested in discovering new answers themselves.
A good teacher feels for his or her students, striving to understand not only where the students are, but also where they come from. In order to present material in a manner that will best be absorbed and retained by their charges, the teacher should know his or her audience, both as a group and individually. Much study and research has been done on the effects of environment on learning and a good teacher should be well aware of these effects. Are the students from tough, impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods, blue collar, working class families or highly competitive, driven environments? While some elements of teaching are consistent across the board, a teacher should be able to relate to her students on their level regardless of their backgrounds. Even individual circumstances might come into consideration when a teacher is working to reach a particular student. A good teacher understands what her students feel, inside and outside of the classroom.
Having developed some amount of empathy, a good teacher now needs a good dose of perspective to temper their empathy. They understand where their students are coming from, but must maintain a perspective on the importance of what she does to where the students are going. What goes on in the classroom has a lot to do with changing what goes on outside of the classroom. A good teacher thinks, “I can feel empathy for where you are coming from, I understand you are poor or from a broken home, or even driven to succeed by overbearing parents you can’t relate to now, but we have to get beyond that because the world I have to prepare you for is not going to care. It is your results and achievements that will make the difference.”A good teacher keeps their perspective on what importance their jobs have in the lives of their students. Dealing with the rules, the politics, the administration or even the classroom environment cannot make them forget the big picture of why they became a teacher: to make a difference in the lives of their students.
Learning cannot take place where chaos rules. A good teacher must establish rules that apply to classroom interactions, respect for others and their property, and participation in class. Effective teachers establish from the beginning at least a few basic rules that remain consistent throughout the year with clear-cut consequences for any infractions. Being balanced, the teacher doesn’t make the list of rules over-bearing such that they become a distraction or get in the way of classroom dynamics. Discipline should be designed to improve the learning environment but not create one that is restrictive and constricts the flow of information and exchange of ideas. The best teachers know how to achieve this balance.
“God grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.”
The first stanza of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr is probably never far from a good teacher’s mind. The classroom is no place for a control freak; organization and self-discipline are necessary traits, but you will never have complete control of a classroom. Here, patience is more than a virtue, it is an absolute necessity or you will go insane.Patience also extends to expectations for student performance. A good teacher understands that each student learns at a different pace and within the limits of the school parameters, they attempt to bring students along that may not be the quickest to grasp the concepts being taught. One of the most rewarding feelings as a teacher is watching the light go on in a students eyes after taking a little extra time to help them understand a lesson.
The World Is A Stage –
It also seems that great teachers just have that little something extra, a little magic that seems to grab your attention and captivate you so that you were hardly aware that what you were doing in that class is learning. I can recall two teachers that had this spark in two completely different subjects. Zabriskey Warren was a math teacher extraordinaire. He would snap his fingers, spin around in front of the class and intersperse his lectures with German exclamations like, “Wunderabar!” after a student had answered a particularly tough question. Frederick Peterson taught English and I can never forget his Shakespeare classes, whether it was his dressing up as one of the witches in Macbeth and cackling, “Double, double, toil and trouble…” or having us recite our chosen soliloquies as he provided the background noises. Thirty years later, I can still recite Romeo’s lines when he encountered Juliet’s apparently lifeless body though I am far from being a Shakespearean actor. All these attributes are really only facets of what makes up a great teacher, because like most great things in life, a great teacher is really more than just the sum of their parts. They are a complete package that just comes together in that special person that you one day realize has gotten more out of you in a particular class than you may have believed you had to give when you entered their classroom. (6)
I. Michael Akbar