Last Word: What makes a good teacher
In the fall 2019 Cornell Report the question was raised, “Is teaching a craft, a performance, an art form? Or is teaching a calling?” After 30 years in a classroom and five years as an administrator, I have come to believe it is some of all three. One can feel it is a calling immediately or it can be after years of experience and a growth of self-confidence.
I don’t think a mediocre teacher can be taught to be a great teacher. It takes a willingness to share of one’s self. A lot of good teaching is based on the relationship or connection between student and teacher—and the possession of a fine set of antenna to know when to push, when to back off, when to laugh, and when to cry. It is also critical, now more than ever, to understand boundaries and honor and respect them.
A good teacher asks questions more than gives answers. I have found the best question is “Why?” with a follow up of “Why?” Learning how and when to ask questions takes practice and experiences. It can be learned from modeling. Thus it can be taught, but it also requires an open mind and a willingness to learn as you teach.
Is teaching part performance? You bet. When teachers walk into a room, they must set out the bait to hook the students. Whether it is a game of hangman on the board, an open-ended question, or a pratfall in front of the class, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the good teacher must find a way to hook the students, to get their attention, to get them involved, to let them see this is not a regular “you sit and absorb my knowledge” class.
My brother, an excellent teacher, once said that teaching is like standing on a desert island throwing bottles with notes in them into the ocean. You never know when a bottle, note, or idea will be picked up and acted upon. When a former student told me she had never forgotten the motto for the outdoor program I taught—plus est en vous, which means you can do more than you think you can—I knew I had thrown a bottle and she had picked it up.
But always remember what teacher and child psychologist Hiam Ginott said: “I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.”
A former New Hampshire State Teacher of the Year, Tom Herbert ’66 taught social studies for over 25 years and was the principal of an alternative high school for five years. He started an experiential Outward Bound-type class and taught it until retirement. Herbert’s account of his experience as a Fisk University exchange student in 1964 ran in 2014 in this magazine.