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Friday, December 7, 2012

Did You Have a Great Teacher?

"I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist,
and that there are as few as there are other great artists.
Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts
since the medium is the human mind and spirit."
  --John Steinbeck

Katherine Schulten, senior producer of The New York Times Learning Network, wrote an article in 2010 in which she asked a couple of simple questions common to the readership: "Who is the best teacher you ever had? Why?"

"Many are convinced that what matters most in making schools successful—more than class size or curriculum— is excellent teaching. Do you agree? Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had, and what made him or her so memorable and effective?"

Schulten explains her motivation for the article below:

"Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert wrote about one successful school in Harlem in a recent column, 'Where the Bar Ought to Be.'  Here he quotes the school’s principal:
"Deborah Kenny talks a lot about passion — the passion for teaching, for reading and for learning. She has it. She wants all of her teachers to have it. Above all, she wants her students to have it[...]
"There is an overemphasis on 'the program elements,' she said, 'things like curriculum and class size and school size and the longer day.' She understood in 2001, when she was planning the first of the schools that have come to be known as the Harlem Village Academies, that none of those program elements were nearly as important as the quality of the teaching in the schools.

“'If you had an amazing teacher who was talented and passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well,' she said, 'that was just 100 times more important than anything else.'”
Here is what Schulten asked her readers to do:

"Tell us about the greatest teacher, or teachers,
you ever had, and what made them great.
Do you think that this principal is right
 that other school elements aren’t
 “nearly as important as the quality
 of teaching”? Why or why not?"

(Katherine Schulten, "Who Is the Best Teacher You Ever Had? Why?,
The New York Times, February 26 2010)

I have always felt if people really want to know happens in a school -- teaching and learning, administrative discipline and control, peer groups and social climate, grading and mentoring -- they should begin by asking the students. After all, they are the school. Who should know better about an institution than the group that is subjected to all phases of activity there on a daily basis?

Of course, questioning students requires a researcher to field answers from a wide variety of  personalities and socio-economic classes in order to form some general consensus. So, Schulten has asked students and ex-students what makes a great teacher. She goes straight to the source -- the learners.

I think you may interested in some answers Schulten received. In fact, you might be somewhat surprised at the responses. I have included some of the students' comments below.

Some of the Answers About the Greatest Teacher(s)

My best teachers (both in the United States and the Philippines) has given me not just book knowledge but the strength and passion to pursue my career in chemistry =) The best teachers are the ones who instill discipline, patience, critical thinking, and inspiration. No amount of money in the world can do that. -Maybelle

My favorite teacher was when I was in 9th grade–45 years ago. She taught both both English and world history and she was tough and demanding. But at the same time she had the ability to instill a genuine interest in the topics she taught. Believe me, even the “class jokers” never gave her any problems. I should know, because I was one of them. She made me WORK and I have had a lifelong love of history and Shakespeare because of her. -Donald

My best teacher was Mr. Smith. He was not my favorite teacher. However, he insisted that we become independent learners. The capacity for lifelong learning outweighs any facts, details, theories I’ve been exposed to since. -Anonymous

My favorite teachers were my Algebra 2 teacher and my Spanish 2 teacher. Both teachers had great teaching styles and would help out any student if they needed it. They wouldn’t leave you hanging there with not knowing how to complete the assignment. Both teachers hold a special place in my heart today! -Kasey

My best teacher was Sr. Margaret Mart, D.C.; she taught us History through stories of great leaders who made both wise and unwise decisions, and she told us of her travels to missions around the world, and the effects on average citizens that leaders’ decisions have. She was an unfailing task master who demanded our very best at every turn, and a kind and loving soul who would pick us up, dust us off, and comfort us when we were not our best. -Eric

My favorite teacher was my 8th grade science teacher Ms. Bruce. When she started her career as a teacher in my school, nobody liked her because she was the toughest teacher we had in middle school, and she also had a I don’t care attitude. But Ms. Bruce taught us that high school was going to be difficult and nothing compared to middle school. Out of all the teachers I have had, Ms. Bruce was the one who cared most of us, by not caring. -Angel

The best teacher I ever had was my 6th grade teacher. He was a very fun and organized guy who actually put effort into teaching us. Despite those times where he used to yell at me for sleeping in his class often, he was always cool and easy to talk to whenever you needed his help. In addition to being a good teacher he was also reasonable and patient with us. I couldn’t ask for a better teacher than him. -J.D.

I cant say that I have had a favorite teacher but I can say that I have had teachers who have taught me many great things. One of those teachers is Mr. Yu. He taught me to take “pride in my work." This really inspired me because most teachers just want you to get the work done to pass, but Mr Yu wants his students to be proud of what they did and to be their best even though they think no one is going to read it. This really made me think that if I just give my best all the time then no one can say that I am lazy and irresponsible. -David

In a lifetime of learning, I’m now 71, the teacher that stands out in my mind is Andrea Giampetro-Meyer. Twenty years ago I was working on a Masters in Finance. She taught a Business Law course for graduate students at Loyola College Baltimore. She was an excellent lecturer wile encouraging active class discussion of the cases.
I’ve always felt that students, who come to class not having read the material, are wasting everyone’s time. She used incentives to encourage serious preparation and class participation. Before each lecture she would hand out a sheet for students to sign if they had studied the material and were willing to take part in the discussion. If you signed up and participated in a certain percentage of the class meetings, you could increase your final grade by a full letter. Socratic discussion was much more efficient as it avoided the time wasting embarrassed silence of the unprepared and readily gave the prepared ones the opportunity to make a positive contribution.
She also emphasized good writing and rewriting. Major assignments had a due date. A few weeks before that due date she blocked out office time to sit down with the student, go over the assignment, and make suggestions for improvement and development.

In addition to her teaching skills her goal seemed to be the improvement of our listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills. -Don Walton

My Take

Many of the comments from students, young and old, confirm my beliefs about great teaching.

I fully believe that great teachers must set high expectation for themselves, and, by doing so, they help set high expectations for their students. As both teachers and students strive to be the best, they learn important lessons together about their own abilities and their own strengths. Then, both are better able to improve their talents and use them effectively. The teacher is responsible for bringing these qualities out in himself/herself and becoming a subject master. Then the teacher is able to present the content and help to improve students consistently through positive feedback and discussion.

To me, great teachers challenge themselves to find the most effective plans and strategies to relate the concepts, principles, and theories of learning. They use their imagination to discover unique ways to present material in an interesting manner so that students can retain knowledge. They refuse to teach by assigning work that is speculative and unclear in nature. Great teachers help students understand the "reasons why," not just complete the bare textbook imperatives of scratching the surface. They help students see the Big Picture and apply it to life. A great teaches does not teach a lesson without first understanding the important theory being applied.

Of course, great teachers are prepared and organized. However, they are never satisfied with substandard, Mickey Mouse busy work. They want to learn to teach successfully, not merely spend all their time writing dry, wordy lesson plans. As they mature and become more comfortable through actual classroom experience, they seek new and better tricks and performance skills to add to their trade. They spend the majority of their time honing their teaching skills, not writing reports and doing clerical tasks to record books of worthless "eduspeak." Instead, they improve actual teaching time as they become comfortable engaging students with a variety of methods and modes. And, they find out "what works best."

I personally think that teachers should share their own experiences within reason and within the context of their assignments. I question counseling students' who have personal problems, but I believe a teacher who discusses the positive principles of life makes students appreciate being treated with maturity. Avoiding pertinent issues within a study -- controversial themes, related news stories, timely social concerns --  fosters the kind of "adult whitewashing" that breeds student distrust.

I believe the best contribution of a great teacher is to help students learn strategies and methods of critical thinking. These instructors require students to reason through problems and to develop ideas that are sound and supported. Great teachers never force feed their own opinions. They allow students to express difference of opinion and challenge them to support their beliefs. They also present opposing views so that students can relate to contrasts. And, to me, the great teacher is dedicated to challenging students to researching the truth.

Now, Dear Readers, It's Your Turn

I would love to read your answers to the Katherine Schulten question. Please leave them in the comment section for this blog entry. Thanks a million. I hope you had some great teachers who truly influenced your life. I know many work extremely hard to help students become successful, happy individuals. We need to keep employing people who strive to be great teachers for the sake of future generations.

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