The Good Teacher: Part Two

My college graduation day was a hot one. My parents, Hugh and Joan, and even my grandfather, Harry, were in the audience. My adored siblings, Steve, Cindy Lou, and Jimmy came. My husband sat by my dad. Yep, I was a young married girl at 21.

The credentialing program is different today. Most would-be teachers take four years of undergraduate study and then student teach. UOP offered a cool program that allowed us to student teach during our senior year of college and then pursue our academic interests over seven years. I pursued English.

Once again, here are my (many) words of long ago.

“The qualities in a good teacher, an above average, dedicated individual, who by action and example is a source of community pride, may be seen in Miss Daisy.

Miss Daisy’s classroom is buzzing with activity. She is rarely found at her desk. She goes out to her students instead of waiting for them to come to her. A smile is a Welcome Sign in her room. It signifies to her that learning can be fun and to her students that she cares. Her enthusiasm captivates their enthusiasm. She can be inconvenienced and she can be bothered. Miss Daisy is fresh, imaginative, and gives her students a reason to come to school.

What other qualities are present in a good teacher? These will never be out-dated or out of step with the rhythm of time.

Enthusiasm—eagerness, zest, spirit.
All of us have little trouble becoming enthusiastic about what interests us. Many teachers are fervent about art, music, science, math, or literature. The enthusiastic teacher, however, is one who can become excited over that which she may not be readily interested in. Too many teachers channel their own personal uninterest about a subject into a fresh and impressionable young mind. For example, Bobby is fascinated by insects, so he captures a spider and brings it to his teacher, who happens to be deathly afraid of them and orders him to take it outside. An enthusiastic teacher, regardless of her fear, should have turned this incident into a learning experience.

A Sense of Humor—amusement, light-heartedness, the ability to laugh at yourself.
This quality should be valued as one of the most important in the classroom. Students love to laugh (don’t we all?) and are the authors of impish pranks. Teachers can save themselves headaches by learning to laugh at such situations. Humor helps to keep the seriousness of the classroom in the right perspective. When the classroom atmosphere is kept in a serious mood, tensions, anxieties, and frustrations flare. With humor, a classroom climate is conducive to learning. A good teacher must be able to laugh at himself. In dealing with adolescents and young adults, this is helpful. A gap between teacher and student is often present at this level. Humor is that effective tool which, when used with discretion, helps to bridge the gap.

Sensitivity—awareness, attentiveness, sympathy.
This quality is too broad and vast to aptly discuss here, but suffice to say that the teacher with this quality is not only sensitive to the emotional capacity of a student, but to the academic one as well. She recognizes the total child—his family, home environment, school-behavior, academic performance, and emotional make-up. It is the good teacher who can distinguish the delicate, individual differences of each child that need attention, be they cognitive or affective in nature, and pump her attention in that direction. The teacher is sensitive to their individual needs as well as to the needs of the group as a whole. The sensitive teacher listens with interest, even when the story being told is dull. She not only notices facial expressions, but written expressions as well. She understands the importance of reading between the lines.

This sensitive touch to teaching is often marred by years of teaching. This once responsive area often petrifies into a callous and crusty wasteland. Only the teacher herself can keep this sensitivity alive and soft. It does not come easy. Staying relevant to youth takes concentrated effort.
Professionalism—dedication, ethics, reliability.
A professional teacher is a responsible individual who realizes that in working with youth, he or she has one of the most important positions in society, important in that the young are impressionable, easily influenced, quick to follow example, and tomorrow’s future. The professional teacher uses her classroom and lectern to guide her students through learning by discovery, not by mimicry. She is not only responsible for her students but also for society. She becomes momentarily unprofessional when she preaches to her students her own personal views as being right, when she slams or discusses negatively the names of other teachers or other students, and when she brings her union problems into the classroom.

The professional qualities in a teacher cause her to consider her profession, education, as not just a job but also an art. Her goal is to improve that art talent daily. The truly professional teacher directs her efforts not in the acquisition of monetary gain, but rather to provide quality instruction for her students.

These four qualities—enthusiasm, a sense of humor, sensitivity, and professionalism are by no means the only qualities found in the good teacher, but merely those that I feel the need to discuss today. These qualities are traditional as they are modern, know no particular era or time in history. They are quite observable when a good teacher is seen in action.

Thank you.”

I still believe in most of what I thought about education, way back in the Pleistocene Era. My little speech was simplistic and ideal. And yet, in the last 35 years, most, if not all, of the educational blather that academics have written in their theses and books, has done little to improve American test scores. Perhaps returning to the simple and ideal might help?

My comments about teacher salary were naïve. It is expensive to support a family in this country. The low teacher salary is a deterrent to attracting bright people. Only when we increase salary, drop tenure, plug in merit pay and accountability, will American education begin to improve. A business model would help prune the dead matter out of an overgrown briar patch.

Reducing the size of the Federal Department of Education, the State Departments of Education and the County Departments of Education is a start.

Return all educational decisions to local school boards. Most communities (with the vote) are capable of directing their students’ education. And to all of you who worry that a small district in a remote part of the United States may not be teaching what you think is right (evolution, banned books…blah, blah, blah)I would say that voters in their own communities can make those decisions for their students.

Do you think we should drive into Amish communities and order them to turn on the lights?

I don’t think so.

In my crowded brain, the stories of 36 years of teaching— to poor kids, rich kids, black kids, Asian kids, white kids, elementary kids, junior high kids, high school kids, adults, slow kids, regular kids, smart kids, and super smart kids—those stories are marinating.

Photo by Cheri Block Sabraw Highway 1 Big Sur, California. 2009 “Just Before the Mud Slide”

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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11 Responses to The Good Teacher: Part Two

  1. My Teacher Hat says:

    Beautiful description. I also read your last post, and will read both again. All teachers should often think about what makes excellence … it is too easy to become complacent. Excellence, like relevence, takes constant effort.

    I disagree with much of the other things you wrote (I am a big proponent of national standards, including topics like evolution being taught in every school district). But I agree with some – tenure is ridiculous. Mediocre teachers getting paid as well as fantastic teachers? Also ridiculous. Using good business practices to improve our schools works, although it makes the unions mad.

    Thanks for helping my own ideas percolate! I’ve been thinking about excellence a lot myself, to the point that I started a teaching blog under this name (I normally blog under another).

  2. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    Thank you. I shall visit your blog.I like a good difference of opinion. Nothing worse than PC language. (See George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.)

    I am all for standards, don’t get me wrong. But all of the mandated standards coming down from Oz have done very little to improve public education. Please let me know which standards you believe have actually enacted real change.

    Other than the Head Start program, I can’t think of much the Feds have provided other than layers of paper, high-brow rhetoric, and unnecessary salaries…

    As far as evolution, I personally believe in it, but who dictates (and more importantly enforces)what we teach?

    And lastly, after tangling with the union on and off, and watching three different teacher strikes over the years, I am not concerned in the least about making the union mad.

    The union will be making much needed concessions in the matter of school choice if I am reading between the lines of Obama’s rhetoric.

    I appreciate your thoughts. Sounds like you are a person who cares. Yay!

  3. Victoria says:

    this is so good, and so inspiring. thank you for your well articulated thoughts.
    I agree wholeheartedly, and hope that as a teacher, I resemble Miss Daisy.

  4. My Teacher Hat says:

    Hi again,

    Tried to reply back to your comment last night, but the page was broken. Just a header and sidebar, but blank otherwise. Strange.

    I don’t think I can say that I’ve seen national standards lead to real change (since we don’t really have national standards, and the ones that became almost-national for political/$ reasons, such as abstinence-only education, did not work). But in my little New England state (sorry for being mysterious – privacy issues with respect to my own blog), our students perform very well on national and international tests – far above most other states – because the standards here are very good. In fact, our state is often held up as an example of standards that work. Teachers are teaching to the standards, not to the test, and as a teacher who creates her own curriculum, I can knowledgeably say that the standards I have used as my basis are complete and well-thought-out.

    Then there’s the other side of the coin – many states’ standards for math and science (my area of teaching) are lacking, full of holes, not rigorous. The students in those states perform poorly on national and international tests. (Now, I don’t think tests are a be-all and end-all. I’m very bothered by high-stakes testing, which leaves behind the students who are great at the subject matter but not great at testing. But tests are the only way we really have to quantitatively compare the educational systems of different states, and I do think they have some use from that point of view.)

    I do think that the national DOE, and many (probably most) state DOEs, are broken. But I think they should be repaired, not scrapped. The students in less-educated areas end up with less-rigorous standards if the standards are set by their immediate communities (naturally, because the school board members in those communities are not experts in various subject matters). This is horrifying to me from a social justice standpoint. Students growing up in a working-class community with an average education level of 8th grade should be taught the same curriculum as students growing up in a university town where the average education is college-level or higher. And this needs to start at kindergarten (or, preferably, pre-K) in order to level the playing field as much as possible. I teach in a low-income college-prep school. Most of our seniors who go to college are the first in their families. But we start teaching them in 7th grade, and by that point it is very, very difficult to make up for the educational deficits they’ve built up in grades K through 6. (Yes, this is in that same state that I mentioned has great standards. But most of our students come from the small percentage of schools that perform far below the state average.)

    Finally, what about teaching subjects such as evolution, which are controversial in many communities? To me, the point should be whether these subjects are controversial among the experts. In the case of evolution, there is no controversy. Biology would not exist in its current form if not for this rich theory, and while biologists argue about the specifics (as happens in every field), there is no “do you believe in evolution or not?” question within mainstream biology. I find it, again, extremely unjust to hold back real scientific knowledge from children simply because their communities think it is evil or untrue. (Or, most often, untrue because it is perceived as evil.) To me, holding back on teaching evolution in a bio class is like holding back on teaching the Civil War in an American History class. Keeping knowledge from students, when that knowledge is necessary in order for them to be competitive in this educated world, is completely against the purpose of public education. Evolution is a theory – and so is gravity, and so is Newtonian mechanics. My area of expertise is physics, not bio. If I did not teach gravity and Newton’s laws to a physics class, I’d be remiss. (And my physics students would have a very hard time understanding much of anything else without the framework provided by these theories.) The same goes for evolution by natural selection – a bio class doesn’t make much sense without it.

    I’m glad you aren’t scared of unions. Working for a charter school, I (thankfully) don’t have to worry about them. They are such a powerful political force, though, and I do hope that Obama stands as firm as it sounds like he will stand. In the city where I live, they wanted the teachers to take a one-year salary freeze. The administrators had already done that much, plus had gone further, taking a 3% cut. The union said NO, even though this meant that HUNDREDS of teachers would have to be laid off. It is infuriating.

    Thanks for stoking such a great conversation, and sorry for the long, long reply! (Did you notice my typo in my first comment – much instead of many? Ugh, that’s been bothering me ever since I did it!)

  5. Dina says:

    I’m a parent of a very young child – not yet school age – whose vocabulary and curiosity expand exponentially every day. Your description of good teacher/bad teacher could easily be modified into good parent/bad parent. And, it makes me incredibly sad that some kids never have the chance to learn creatively in a nurtured environment at home or at school – a tragic double whammy that happens much too frequently.

    In a couple of years my first child will enter the school system and I have begun to pay much more attention to the educational debates and discussions happening both where I live and nationally. Thank you for your posts and for feeding my interest in becoming more informed.

    P.S. The picture is beautiful. I love the mystery of the background.

  6. Christopher says:

    As I read through your speech it made so much sense to me, that when I came to your peroration, I realised I’d forgotten it was a speech from a twenty-one year-old.

    “……These four qualities—enthusiasm, a sense of humor, sensitivity, and professionalism are by no means the only qualities found in the good teacher, but merely those that I feel the need to discuss today. These qualities are traditional as they are modern, know no particular era or time in history. They are quite observable when a good teacher is seen in action…….”

    At the risk re-treading what I said in my comment on your last posting, the qualities you listed are innate to those who have them. They can’t be learned.

    Another reason why most of us can’t teach, or otherwise instruct, whether in the classroom or workplace, is that we have power to the extent we know stuff which others don’t. Thus teaching, or instructing, is a power game.

    Speaking only for myself, almost all I’ve learned, I learned on my own, because I couldn’t relate to my teachers or instructors, most of whom (but not all) couldn’t communicate properly what they were trying to teach me. Many also seemed bent on humiliating me (the power game).

    As it was for me, could it also have been for most others?

  7. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    Hi Christopher,

    I would agree that great teachers, as opposed to good teachers, pull their teaching skills from innate sources. I call them “naturals.” Good teachers can be trained by mentor teachers, and of course, by the life experience itself.

    In the US (not sure what you experienced in Canada) one weakness in the whole credentialing mish-mash is how we assign and supervise young teachers. Often, they are gladiators in a Lion’s Den, provided to them by teachers anxious to dump tough teaching assignments.

    It saddens me to read your last paragraph. There is no place in the classroom, any classroom, for humiliation.

    One of my little tricks over the years is to play by my own rules…funny how that works…

    Obviously you learned to think critically and write, all by yourself!

  8. Cheri Block Sabraw says:

    My Teacher Hat,

    Whew…you are passionate about what you do. We need teachers just like you. I see from your blog that you are at a charter school. Yep. That makes sense.

    A charter school begins the marketplace model I support, in contrast to the government controlled cafeteria dominating our system today.

    And what fuels this passion I read from your comment?
    Certainly, by working in a school serving under served students, and seeing results, you are motivated to write that fresh curricula.

    People like you should be paid double the salary. All teachers who venture into tough areas, where scores are low, teachers are exhausted, and students are off task (big-time)need an incentive. Back to the market place.

    Most of the public school districts in this country are lead by well-meaning people, but their years submerged in educational dogma/theory/philosophy haven’t produced the product we hope for all kids, right?

    Talk to African American parents in inner city school districts…say Milwaukee…and ask them why they want school choice. They want good teachers for their kids, and to dictate to them what the primarily white establishment believes is best for their kids, is a bit racist, I might add.

    The unions…well….I have about 20 blog posts I could write about unions, but I promised Andreas Kluth ( see his comment on my post Stevie, My Footstool) that I wouldn’t rant again. 🙂

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post, one which caused me pause.

  9. My Teacher Hat says:

    Thanks, Cheri. Not much to add to this. I agree with you that the edubabble (my term – inspired by "psychobabble") found at administrative levels isn't helping anything. And I also agree that teachers should be paid more for working in more difficult schools … but where is the money to come from? The donations that my school normally counts on getting are drying up in this economy… Money is so tight.

    There is one brand-new school in NYC, extremely low-income & urban, that got a ton of funding to complete its mission: pay teachers $100K, and only hire the very, very best. This is their first year. I will be interested to see their level of success.

  10. Ursley Devar says:

    ohh.. gr8!
    next year is my grduation!

  11. My Teacher Hat says:

    Hi again Cheri,

    I enjoyed this exchange so much that I included links to it and the previous post in my new blog entry. Thanks for the great discussion!

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