Oklahoma teachers rally at the state capitol, April 2, 2018. (Getty/J Pat Carter)

What a great teacher is worth

Think about a remarkable teacher you had — do you remember what they taught, or how they taught you?


Jeffrey A. KottlerStanley J. ZehmEllen Kottler
April 8, 2018 12:30PM (UTC)

Who was the best teacher you ever had? Which mentor immediately stands out as the one who has been most influential and inspirational in your life? This could have been a teacher from elementary school, or high school, or college. It could be a coach or a neighbor or a relative. Whoever it was, your teacher was someone who was an absolute master at helping you learn far more than you ever imagined possible.

Bring to mind a clear image of this remarkable teacher. Hear your teacher’s voice, concentrating on not only its unique resonance and tone but also some special message that still haunts you. Feel the inspiration that still lives within you as a result of your relationship with this teacher. Think about the personal qualities this person exuded that commanded your respect and reverence. As you recall memories of this individual who was such a powerful model in your life, it is likely that you can identify and list certain personal characteristics that were most powerful. As you review this list of qualities, it may surprise you to realize that very few of these notable attributes have to do with the content of what this teacher taught or even with personal teaching methods. What is ironic about this phenomenon is that much of teacher preparation continues to be focused on methods courses and in areas of content specialty. The assumption behind this training for elementary and secondary teachers is that when you study a subject in depth and learn the proper methods of instruction, presumably you then become a more competent and outstanding teacher. Not included in this process are a number of other variables that make up the essence of all great educators and infuse them with power—their distinctly human dimensions, including personality traits, attitudes, and relationship skills.

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It is the human dimension that gives all teachers, whether in the classroom, the sports arena, or the home, their power as effective influencers. When you review the list of qualities that made your best teachers effective, you probably noticed that so much of what made a difference in your life was not what they did, but who they were as human beings. They exhibited certain characteristics that helped you to trust them, to believe in them. It did not matter whether they taught physics or ballet, grammar or bicycle repair; you would sit at their feet and listen, enraptured by the magic they could create with the spoken word and with their actions. They could get you to do things that you never dreamed were possible. It was not so much that you cared deeply about what they were teaching as that you found yourself so intrigued by them as people. You respected them and felt connected to them in some profound way that transcended the content of their instruction. You responded to their example and encouragement. You began to see dimensions of yourself you were previously unaware of—special gifts, skills, ideas. Under their caring instruction, you began to know and value your unique self and find confidence in your personal voice.

ATTRIBUTES OF A GREAT TEACHER

There may be considerable debate among educational theoreticians and practitioners about the optimal curriculum, the most appropriate philosophy of teaching for today’s schools, the best methods of instruction and strategies for discipline, but there is a reasonable consensus about what makes a teacher great, even if these characteristics are uniquely expressed. Take a minute to reflect on how you ended up where you are right now. What inspired you, or rather who inspired you, to consider teaching as a profession?

Charisma

Since the beginning of human time, those who were tapped for the calling of teacher, whether as priests, professors, or poets, were those who had developed the capacity to inspire others. They emanated a personality force that others found attractive, compelling, even seductive in the sense that there was a strong desire to know more about and from them. In the words of the novelist and former teacher Pat Conroy (1982), charisma in teachers occurs when they allow their personality to shine through their subject matter: I developed the Great Teacher Theory late in my freshman year. It was a cornerstone of the theory that great teachers had great personalities and that the greatest teachers had outrageous personalities. I did not like decorum or rectitude in a classroom; I preferred a highly oxygenated atmosphere, a climate of intemperance, rhetoric, and feverish melodrama. And I wanted my teachers to make me smart. A great teacher is my adversary, my conqueror, commissioned to chastise me. He leaves me tame and grateful for the new language he has purloined from other Kings whose granaries are famous. He tells me that teaching is the art of theft: of knowing what to steal and from whom. (p. 271)

Scholars may argue as to whether qualities such as charisma are ingrained or can be learned. We would prefer to sidestep that debate and suggest that all those who have devoted their lives to the service of others can increase charismatic powers and thereby command attention in the classroom. This is true whether your inclination is to be dramatic or low key in your presentations, loud or soft. Charisma, after all, can be displayed in so many different ways, depending on your personal style, not to mention what your students respond to best. It involves gaining access to your own unique assets as a human being, which allows you to find a voice that is authentic, compelling, and captivating.

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Compassion

Children, and for that matter all other living creatures, appreciate people who are genuinely caring and loving toward them. This is why the best teachers are so much more than experts in their fields and more than interesting personalities—they are individuals whom children can trust, they are adults who are perceived as safe and kind and caring. Even when they are in a bad mood, give difficult assignments, or have to teach units that are relatively boring, compassionate teachers will get the benefit of the doubt from students. When you think again about your greatest teachers, who may not necessarily have seemed like the kindest people, you still had little doubt that they had your best interests at heart. They may have pushed you, may even have shoved you hard, but you knew in your heart that they cared deeply about you as a person. You felt their respect and, yes, sometimes their love. Very few people go into education in the first place to become rich or famous. On some level, every teacher gets a special thrill out of helping others; unfortunately, after many years in the classroom, some veterans lose the idealism that originally motivated them to be professional helpers. Yet, the teachers who flourish, those who are loved by their students and revered by their colleagues, are those who feel tremendous dedication and concern for others—not just because they are paid to do so, but because it is their nature and their ethical responsibility.

Egalitarianism

Good teachers are certainly not mushy pushovers. Yes, they are compassionate, sometimes even permissive, but they recognize that children need and even crave having the teacher set limits. It is not so much that students despise discipline in the classroom, but rather that they will not abide rules that are unfair or that are applied indiscriminately. It is even safe to say that what children complain about the most in school are those teachers who they perceive as biased or inequitable in the ways they enforce rules. As one 10-year-old explains,

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She is just so mean I hate her. You never know what to expect. There is this one girl who can get away with anything. She whispers or passes notes and Mrs. ___ just tells her to “please be quiet.” But if the other kids in the class are caught doing the same thing, then she punishes them. The other day she wouldn’t let anybody go outside for recess just because a few kids were making a disturbance. I wasn’t even talking, but I had to stay inside, too. I just hate her.

If we consider modeling human qualities to be an important part of the teacher’s role, then certainly demonstrating our own sense of fairness is crucial to helping children evolve their moral thinking. We cannot forget that teaching is an intrinsically moral act. As Weissbourd (2003) says, the moral development of students depends on the adults in their lives. How are children supposed to learn moral values, such as treating others with respect and fairness, unless they see their teachers practicing these behaviors on a daily basis?

Gender Issues

The last point we want to mention relates to gender in the classroom. Research in the 1990s reported by the American Association of University Women revealed that classroom teachers treated boys and girls differently, with boys receiving more attention from teachers. Ryan and Cooper (2004) describe that boys have higher levels of participation than girls. “Boys are more likely to call out, and when they do, teachers are apt to accept the call out and continue with the class. When girls call out, a much less frequent occurrence, the teacher’s typical response is to correct the inappropriate behavior” (Ryan & Cooper,2004,p. 99). They note boys receive more criticism, praise, and feedback than girls. There are also differences in the quantity and types of advanced classes boys take when compared to girls.

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While noting research reports show improvements in recent years, Ryan and Cooper suggest several measures for teachers, such as taking into account all learning styles, being aware of your interactions with your students, selecting materials that are not gender biased, choosing groups rather than letting students self-select with whom they will work, and making sure all students have opportunities to participate. Calling on students rather than letting them call out answers will help to ensure fairness. Many teachers use a monitoring system, such as names on index cards drawn from a stack or names on popsicle sticks picked from a can.

Excerpted with permission from "On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension" by Jeffrey A. Kottler, Stanley J. Zehm, and Ellen Kottler. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

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