What is a Good Teacher?

I was having lunch with a good friend, an extremely bright friend, and he told me what he thought a good teacher was:  Someone who provided the resources for a student to be able to learn.  I disagreed with his answer and I told him why.

 

Should a teacher provide resources?  Yes.  And for some kids, this is all a teacher has to be...just give them what they need, be it supplies, technology, information, and they'll go.

 

For others, perhaps the majority, especially in the difficult Middle School years, this is not enough.  You can give them every resource they need...heck,  even resources they want, or ask for, and they still won't learn.  Some people will use this as an opportunity to discuss student responsibility and the apparent lack of it today.

 

Oh, yes, students must be responsible for their own learning.  In order for that to happen, there's one thing they must have.  It is usually missing from the discussion about good teaching because people who have not taught aren't always able to articulate its importance.

 

A good teacher provides a relationship in which a student can learn.  A relationship is different from a resource, because it can't be given and left there for the student.  It's a complex interaction that must be fostered, and the teacher must be the expert in managing it.

 

As I said, for some students, particularly many high-achieving well-to-do students, the relationship is pretty simple:  give me what I need and I'll go shoot for the stars.  Beyond this, there are so many other kinds of relationships that teachers must have, relationships in which students are afraid to try, relationships in which students haven't discovered a reason to care, or in which students no longer trust anyone.  To make matters more difficult, teachers must have many different kinds of relationships at the same time, because the room is full of different people.

 

This ability to foster a relationship with individuals and the group is extremely difficult to learn.  It's rarely taught in teacher preparation, perhaps because it can only be modeled and learned through experience.  It is the element that separates the teacher of thirty years from the teacher of three.

 

When administrators and politicians seek to "enable" teachers, often they get frustrated because they have provided so many resources to the teacher.  What they often have not done is left space and time for teachers to establish the relationship with the students.  If they fail to recognize the need and the method of establishing this relationship, and of the time and energy it takes to do it, they may crowd out a teacher's ability to do the most important thing by demanding a lot of other little things.

 

Teachers that do not know how to foster these relationships do need mentorship and supervision in how to create them with their students.  Teachers that are not performing to expectation should be assessed to determine whether the problem is a difficulty establishing the relationship with their students, which may have many causes, or a lack of desire to have the relationship, which would suggest a teacher either in need of supervision or a change in careers.  But all of the other teachers, the ones that are clearly doing well, should be able to preserve the energy and time to keep themselves whole and energized enough to maintain 30-50 relationships a class period.

 

If you can't see how this relationship occurs, you are probably taking it for granted.  Good teachers make it look easy, and because no one is talking about it, how would you know it was something that was hard to do?  Nevertheless, it must be there in addition to the usual things you expect from any professional:  accountability, professionalism, courtesy.

 

Could you please take another look at your favorite (and least favorite) teachers?  If you agree that this is the most important quality of teaching, how can you remind your government representatives and your administrators about it?  You may have to teach them... 

3 comments

  • Marilyn Feingold

    Marilyn Feingold

    I agree, Adam. The teachers I remember most are the few who took a genuine interest in me and made me feel special. This was especially true in elementary school. By high school, my focus was on keeping up with my schoolwork and social life. I learned for tests. I don't recall having any special relationships with my teachers. I did enjoy learning for the tests and reading books that were assigned as well as research papers. I was very much an overachiever. I am certain that motivation came from trying to prove to myself "I could do it" and wanting to make my parents proud..I also felt the need to "Keep up " with my peers. Even in college I was still primarily learning to "pass the test". Only when I got out of school did I really enjoy learning for learning sake.

    I agree, Adam. The teachers I remember most are the few who took a genuine interest in me and made me feel special. This was especially true in elementary school. By high school, my focus was on keeping up with my schoolwork and social life. I learned for tests. I don't recall having any special relationships with my teachers. I did enjoy learning for the tests and reading books that were assigned as well as research papers. I was very much an overachiever. I am certain that motivation came from trying to prove to myself "I could do it" and wanting to make my parents proud..I also felt the need to "Keep up " with my peers.

    Even in college I was still primarily learning to "pass the test". Only when I got out of school did I really enjoy learning for learning sake.

  • Darcy

    Darcy

    I agree with the basic impetus behind this post. I think I would use "connection" in place of the word "relationship". It's semantics, but creating relationships is a lot of pressure to put on already underpaid and overworked teachers, many of whom are so under-resourced that they have to spend their own money to provide for their classrooms. Also, you don't have to have a personal relationship with a student to make a connection with them. I have attended masterclasses where the teacher didn't know me from Eve, but I can definitely tell you that they made a connection with me and I got a ton out of it...more than from some of my teachers with whom I had an actual relationship. Thanks for your excellent thoughts on this, and for welcoming mine, for what they're worth! :)

    I agree with the basic impetus behind this post. I think I would use "connection" in place of the word "relationship". It's semantics, but creating relationships is a lot of pressure to put on already underpaid and overworked teachers, many of whom are so under-resourced that they have to spend their own money to provide for their classrooms. Also, you don't have to have a personal relationship with a student to make a connection with them. I have attended masterclasses where the teacher didn't know me from Eve, but I can definitely tell you that they made a connection with me and I got a ton out of it...more than from some of my teachers with whom I had an actual relationship. Thanks for your excellent thoughts on this, and for welcoming mine, for what they're worth! smile

  • Bobbi Kornblit

    Bobbi Kornblit

    Thanks for your posting, and it's good to hear from a dedicated teacher! The complex and rewarding relationships you described in your blog is a theme in the classic book about motivating students: LIVES ON THE BOUNDARY by Mike Rose. He revolutionized the way potential is assessed in low performing children. Rose's blog often explores some of the issues that you have raised in your essay. Your comments show that you deeply care about the next generation.

    Thanks for your posting, and it's good to hear from a dedicated teacher! The complex and rewarding relationships you described in your blog is a theme in the classic book about motivating students: LIVES ON THE BOUNDARY by Mike Rose. He revolutionized the way potential is assessed in low performing children. Rose's blog often explores some of the issues that you have raised in your essay. Your comments show that you deeply care about the next generation.

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