Personal History of Learning
For a large portion of my life, I wanted to be anything but a teacher. I still functioned in teacher-like roles (children’s theatre, coaching a company team, etc.), but I ignored that in my blind aversion towards education. I ran away from teaching for many years. Part of it was I saw the toll teaching took on my parents. The exhaustion, the financial struggles, and the lack of support were enough for me to say no. The other reason was my experience feeling stifled by the general rigidity and lack of creative allowance in much of public education.
Long before I was a teacher I was a student and I had a variety of teachers whose quality varied on a sliding scale. I was probably better off than many coming from a college-educated middle-class family and being placed in gifted classes at a young age. It gave me the opportunity to learn from some great teachers, but I also had some that were well below par.
I had an AP calculus teacher who held the theory that any lack of sleep caused by excessive homework could be made up on vacations. He disliked me because I refused to do much homework but I aced the exams. Why should I do busy work if I obviously understood the content? I had an American History teacher who was nice but gave a lot of bonus points for participation. I answered enough in class questions that I skipped the last two weeks of class and the final. I learned little despite deep interest in the topics. I had a professor who physically threw things at me because I talked during his lectures that were uninformative and uninteresting. There were teachers I barely paid attention to because they weren’t challenging me and I could pass without listening, so I drew comics and programmed games on my calculator.
Some of my least favorite teachers were the ones who thought quiet classrooms were learning classrooms. That wasn’t true at all if half the kids were asleep. I had teachers who would get upset because I wouldn’t stay on task. Meanwhile, the task was a worksheet full of math problems that I finished 10 minutes before my peers that they tried to say I needed to spend more time checking. I, out of a lack of respect, told them to check it as I was sure they were right. They were, but that only seemed to irritate the teachers more. So when I got reprimanded for drumming on desks or humming a song, I would act conciliatory, but I was mostly annoyed. In truth, I was never a very good student even if I was very good at school. The two are not the same if rote memorization is the only goal and creative thought is discouraged in place of conformity.
I did have some really amazing teachers though. The Einstein-Fest and projects in middle school science were incredible. I loved field trips to the Chicago Field Museum and everyone is excited about parachute day in gym class. Ms. West, my 4th-grade teacher could be quite strict with me having notes home to get signed a few times (and forged a few others). Above all, though she was always caring, challenging, and creative. She got permission to take a bunch of city kids on a camp out where we experienced canoeing, hiking, archery, frog dissection, and (to my dismay at the time) group showers. She also noted how I would finish work quickly and, instead of allowing me unstructured boredom, she fed into my hobby by giving me books on drawing to use when I finished. She encouraged me to explore and when we had an artist lead an assembly, she had us replicate the act with construction paper and chalk. My efforts had been worthwhile and resulted in a drawing that was placed in a place of honor in the school. She encouraged me in non-traditional tasks and it resulted in me improving academically and socially. Good teachers take that extra step.
The Skills of A Good Teacher
The skills that make a good teacher are often the same ones we would expect in a good student. They’re the same skills we recognize as essential components of 21st-century learning. Now, whether a teacher fully embraces the changing nature of education, good teachers have still seen their role as more than just holders of information. Good teachers facilitate learning creatively and rigorously. Whether or not they have an open classroom, dig into hands-on learning, play games with their students, or are the queen of field trips and community education there are traits that I see consistently exhibited by quality teachers.
- Good teachers have high expectations. A quality teacher’s standards aren’t measured by a state test but by the highest level of a student’s capability. Regardless of different student challenges, a good teacher will never settle for good enough. This means never accepting a student’s first effort as sufficient. It’s not about being overly critical (though reasonable critique is essential), it’s about an expectation and mindset of continuing growth.
- The show their effectiveness. It’s not enough to expect a lot of students, but you must also help them get to that peak. That’s why I’ve always thought the most effective teachers are not those who work with high-achieving students but rather those who can help struggling students achieve at high levels. Some students will do well in most environments. The students of the most skilled teachers are the ones who show the most growth in ways that are measurable and personal.
- They maintain clear and concrete objectives. To be effective, a teacher must set clear student goals to know if they are effectively helping students achieve them. The goals should be S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and timebound).
- They constantly assess. Quality teaching is never about a few summative assessments but rather a variety of regular formative measurements to determine in different ways if goals are being met.
- They take concrete actions. Whether goals are being met or not, a good teacher needs to be ready to take definitive action to change or improve any work being done.
- They are prepared & organized. Yes, it’s possible to be a messy genius, but it makes it harder for struggling students to follow your plan if it’s opaque or there isn’t one. This isn’t about being overly rigid, but there need to be regular structures in place to allow students a sense of comfort and security.
- They must be flexible. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. No plan, however well-orchestrated, will go perfectly when it is put in the hands of 25 6 year-olds. Good teachers plan well, so they have a structure to be able to improvise and show their creativity in midst of unexpected challenges. It’s like how the best freestyle rappers have long created notebooks full of rhymes so they can create the perfect riff for that moment.
- They are great communicators. So much of teaching is either talking or listening. It’s communicating with students, parents, colleagues, and administrators in a manner that THEY can understand and be inspired by.
- They are connected to their community. The best teachers don’t stand alone. They are beacons that draw in students and their families as well as inexperienced coworkers. They even extend their reach to the community beyond the school’s walls to help their students form meaningful connections.
- They create a positive environment. A safe, positive, and effective space for students are essential for quality learning to happen. Check out the 12 keys to creating that kind of a classroom.
- They care about their students. Depending on the age of students and nature of your classroom, this can look different but it begins with respecting your students’ thoughts and feelings as valid even if they aren’t always rational. It’s clear very quickly to students if their teacher thinks they’re worthwhile.
- They are approachable. Yes, a teacher should always be professional, but that doesn’t mean aloof. You can share your thoughts, feelings, and even some personal information with your students. It will create the connections your students will need to inspire their persistence.
- They know the content well. Even tough teaching content directly becomes less crucial in the age of YouTube, it is still necessary for a teacher to have it mastered. You can’t create clear goals or be flexible in allowing students multiple ways to demonstrate their mastery of a topic that you’re unsure about.
- They teach more than subject matter. It’s certainly not just about content. As I said 21st-century skills are crucial, but teachers are also training young people to be worthwhile human beings and decent members of society. This may mean direct social-emotional learning or it may mean the occasional aside or behavioral correction. Teaching kindness is at least as crucial as computation.
- They can admit their weaknesses. As they say, pobody’s nerfect. The best teachers know what they need to improve and are willing to admit it because they’re confident enough in what they do know. You can’t address your shortcomings until you admit them.
- They love learning. A good teacher is committed to growth because they love learning and they foster that same love in their students.
- They persevere. Even the best teachers will struggle some days. It may be imperceptible to the casual observer, but they know they weren’t at their best. They admit it, make a course correction, and have the grit to forge ahead.
- They are leaders. It is not necessary (or many times even desired) for good teachers to become administrators, but they should act as leaders amongst their peers initiating new programs and learning opportunities as well as guiding less experienced colleagues.
- They should be technologically savvy. No, you don’t need to be able to rebuild a hard drive from scratch, but the ubiquity of modern technology means that a teacher should at least be familiar with several ways they can leverage it to improve student learning outcomes. It’s not about the worth of the tech, because worksheets on a Chromebook are still worthless busy work. It’s about using it to facilitate growth.
- They love their job. Again, not every day is going to go great and you will certainly make mistakes, but, if you spend every day rushing home and complaining about how you can’t stand it (whether it means the kids, your coworkers, the administrators, or the job in general) you should stop. Why pursue anything that you don’t deeply believe in. At the end of the day, you should be guided by your love of children and your deep desire to see them excel. Preparing students to improve the future world in even in some small way should motivate you to become the best teacher you can be.