Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What makes a good teacher?

Hi Edahn, 
I want to ask something about teachers. What makes a good teacher? Who can be a teacher? Could good teachers save the world?

WHAT MAKES A GOOD teacher. That's a tricky topic. To answer, we first have to delineate the role of a teacher. 

In the narrowest sense, a teacher is supposed to teach information to students so they can understand it, record it, and recite it back. Unfortunately, our education system here in the US has placed a lot of emphasis on the ability to recite information and not enough emphasis on ensuring that student understand what they're learning. It's not the teachers' fault, though; it's the unqualified people who are designing and implementing educational policy to the detriment of students. 

In a broader, more interesting sense, a teacher isn't just charged with imparting information, but with the much more important task of imparting values and social norms. Think about the people we celebrate as heroes--Ghandi, MLK, Jeebus, Buddha, Einstein--all these guys were really great teachers. They taught us what was important in life and staked their reputation, and in some cases their lives, on those beliefs. They helped us understand what peace and freedom are about and how to establish them wisely rather than violently.

So what makes a good teacher? I'd say ethical maturity is their most salient quality. They've developed a set of values, a vision for the world, a plan for achieving it, and the self-discipline needed to see their plan to fruition. Some teachers teach by example (e.g., Joan of Arc) while others teach by instruction. The good instructors know how to reach others. They understand where their students are at and know what they'll respond to best. Passion? Information? Activities? Humor? It depends on the audience and the teacher's gifts.

The values they develop don't just have to be peace and love and gushy stuff like that. They could also include humor, joy, laughter, intelligence, knowledge, art, etc. To some degree, though, I think all authentic value-sets include peace and harmony as a value.

Who can be a teacher? Although I believe that good and bad are subjective concepts, I there is a such thing as an objective right and wrong. I think it comes from our nature, and you can observe it in yourself very clearly when you see cruelty. With that said, everyone has access to right and wrong, everyone can develop a set of values, and everyone can develop a vision, a plan, and self-disciple. Ergo, everyone can become a teacher.

Your last question is "can good teachers save the world?" I think that depends on the quality of the students and whether good teachers are identified and honored. The best teacher with the worst class isn't going to accomplish very much despite having great skills. I constantly ponder the question of whether our "class" is capable of being educated or not. I go back and forth all the time. These days, things change so fast and so drastically, it's hard to predict what's going to happen. I used to think we were screwed, but then Iran's nuclear ambitions were frustrated, Wikileaks made its disclosures, protests started happening around the world, and people are finally waking up to corporate greed and recklessness and all the deception and injustice that pervades politics. Those are some reassuring signs.

As a society, we've lost touch with what it means to be an exceptional teacher and we've become obsessed with superficial results through standardized testing. We've forgotten what a teacher is really supposed to do, and decided, incorrectly, that the art of teaching can be industrialized. The same thing that happened to restaurants in the 1950s with the drive thru is now happening to our schools. Seduced by the idea that standardizing education and making it nearly-automated and mechanical is a good thing, we've tried to mass-produce education like a product on an assembly line -- standardized tests, standardized curriculum, standardized evaluations. And it just doesn't work because teaching is an art that requires intimacy, feedback, and flexibility. But myopic, perhaps ambitious people want to believe otherwise and in pursuit of their goal, have devalued teachers and stripped them of their creative freedom as well as their income. Those with real talents are unable to use those talents. We're drastically changing the nature of education for the worse. We've got to wake up soon, and ironically, it'll be a teacher (or a group of teachers in the form of concerned parents) who exposes what we're doing wrong. The web is a good place to start a movement like that.

In closing, I don't want to say "we all have to be teachers" because it sounds really clich√©...but yeah, we all have to become teachers. We have to stop confusing opinions and affiliations with values and learn how to discern right from wrong. If we hold those values sacred and abide by them, we become true teachers.

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