A couple of the best teachers I ever had were not very good teachers. Let me explain.
The first was a high school math teacher that I had for two years. One of my best friends was in her classes with me, let’s say his name was Picard. She would hand back our exams and in front of the entire class say, “Mr. Abraham, you only got an 89 on the exam.
“Mr. Picard made a 100.”
She wheedled, she bullied, she intimidated. And she got me to work. Her classes were among my favorites in high school.
But she was not popular with most students. She didn’t hold the rest of them up to public ridicule, but she was hardly warm and cuddly. So she was an excellent teacher for some of us, but not for everyone.
The second was the medical school professor I described in my post about test taking. In contrast to my math teacher, he was quite popular. He was witty and innovative, and at times he dryly lampooned conventional approaches to medicine. I can remember one day he introduced a lecture on the respiratory cycle by riding a wobbling bicycle into class. I thought he was great.
And then one day I talked to a classmate, a woman who was was highly motivated and ended up training at one of the Harvard hospitals. Her complaint? She checked his lectures against the textbooks, and the lectures didn’t always stack up. So his loose, informal approach, strong on entertainment but occasionally lacking in accuracy, was a great introduction to the field. But it was unsatisfactory for students who wanted the next level of learning.
Several ideas come out of these observations. First, we have these ridiculous, pseudo-scientific ideas that there is one ideal teaching method. School boards then imperiously decide this or that method is the best way, and the only way, to reach all students. Obviously, my math teacher’s teasing and ridiculing worked with someone who wasn’t easily embarrassed (there are certain life skills acquired by regularly making a fool of one’s self), and who was confident of his math skills. But it was not helpful for more typical students. On the other hand, my entertaining med school professor was the opposite, he was popular with those of us at the entry level, but not necessarily the best teacher for students wanting more.
That shouldn’t be surprising. We would hardly expect the approaches and mindset of a skilled kindergarten teacher to work in high school, and vice versa.1)My kindergarten principal followed us to junior high school (I’m convinced it was because of me). His slow, repetitive morning announcements, tailored for elementary students, drove us to apoplexy in junior high. Neither of these would be successful at the graduate school level. And at the top level of education, in writing for scholarly journals, there is almost no humanity left, only dry, bare-bones information. Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all.
Second, and from that, a great teacher in one situation is not necessarily a great teacher in all situations. The ideal teacher would be the one that adapts to each student, who intellectually and intuitively understands what each student needs, and responds accordingly.
Ideal teachers cannot exist, of course. It is rare that a teacher has more than 36 weeks to understand her pupils; and in a class of 30 students, there is simply not the time for interaction, reflection, and personalization that such an approach requires.
From those, the third observation is that we need to recognize the rare skills that great teachers have, and the years it takes to develop them. So we need to pay teachers accordingly, in both salary and respect. We need to stop saddling teachers with mindless rules and layers of insensate bureaucracy. We need to get them the resources they need, and get out of their way.
And the fourth and final observation goes to the theme I have hammered here, about conservative and liberal approaches. It is not whether one or the other, but when one or the other. If you think about it, my math teacher was a good, old-fashioned, tough disciplinarian. She was like the company commander when I went through Navy boot camp. From a teaching perspective, she was a hard-line conservative.
A good kindergarten teacher, on the other hand, should very much be a bleeding heart liberal. Most of us would not let anyone else near our small children, certainly not the 19th century disciplinarian pictured here, nor the one I discussed in my post on intellectual abuse. Kindergartners are very fragile, and they are confused and lacking in sophistication. They need to be cher-cher‘ed.2)A Cajun term: cher is French for ‘dear’, and when Cajuns and Creoles console someone they typically pat them on the back and say, cher, cher. With a small child, a tough disciplinarian will irrevocably destroy any future desire to learn.
Even here, of course, it’s not that simple. A good kindergarten teacher may be a bleeding-heart, but she has to look like a drill sergeant. That hit me one day when I was following a first grade teacher, and at lunch she was constantly scowling and snapping her fingers at her students. I must have looked surprised, because she suddenly smiled at me and said, “My students adore me.
“And I adore them.”
Air Force boot camp company, courtesy Wikimedia.
Teacher punishing student by George Cruikshank, courtesy Wikimedia.
Navy Drill Team, courtesy Wikimedia.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||My kindergarten principal followed us to junior high school (I’m convinced it was because of me). His slow, repetitive morning announcements, tailored for elementary students, drove us to apoplexy in junior high.|
|2.||↑||A Cajun term: cher is French for ‘dear’, and when Cajuns and Creoles console someone they typically pat them on the back and say, cher, cher.|