Teaching is a challenging profession, no matter what the political pundits would have you believe. It takes a great deal of time (education, preparation, planning, assessing, reflecting, adjusting…), energy and experience to embody all of the characteristics of a great teacher. And, lets face it, there are a lot of great teachers out there.
Two sources have encapsulated for me the definition of great teaching.
A TVO Parents Presents video: What Makes a Great Teacher?
And an Edutopia article: “Embracing Messy Learning”
In watching the video, a few quotes stood out to me as part of my definition.
Great teachers are not born. While, true, I do believe teaching does and should come naturally. There needs to be an innate sense of loving working with others, compassion and kindness, in addition to having a passion about the discipline one is teaching; moreover, good teachers continue to hone their craft over time. This comes with the desire to motivate others, a strong work ethic to do one’s best, always, whether the task is building curriculum or finding ways to implement it that is meaningful and relevant for the students. It’s not only about doing the work, it’s also about reflecting on what worked and didn’t and why. It’s about being open and flexible to change which means looking within, observing, collaborating and never giving up the desire to learn and grow as a professional.
Audience is important. In fact, it may be at the top-of-the-list important. Essential to good teaching is knowing one’s audience. Taking the time to get to know students as individuals, both as people and as learners, is the key to successful teaching. If students don’t buy in to what a teacher implements, learning is not possible. Gauging the audience as a whole is also important. No two classes are alike, each has a pulse all their own; picking up on that and responding to that are among some of the fine attributes of good teaching. Also, of paramount importance, allowing students a voice — being confident enough to hand over the reigns to them, to listen and respond, helps them build confidence and adds dimension to lessons.
“Embracing Messy Learning” gives project based, authentic learning an interesting name. Learning is messy work. When students learn a new concept, they are so focused on what’s in front of them, that other skills previously learned fall by the wayside, but that’s a good thing. It means they are focusing on new learning and how it should interact with their prior knowledge. Flexibility is the key to this kind of teaching/learning. Teachers giving up the rights and the wrongs in order to instill creativity, critical thinking, exploration and discovery. I’m of the “Less is More” school of thought. The less instruction I give them, the greater their struggle, the more learning happens. True teaching, in this kind of learning, is to be their guide through the process. To probe and prod them to find their own solutions. Some of my best teaching has come out of such projects which allows them choice and personalization, in allowing students to make meaning through their own methods and process. Inevitably, the feedback is “Wow, that was the hardest project I’ve done, but I’ve learned so much!” The challenge for teachers with project-based learning is to raise the bar enough so that it is doable with enough parameters to guide students but not too much to prevent their own original thought. Teachers need to ‘buy into’ implicit teaching/learning approach for this to work. Teachers also need to get students to ‘buy into’ failure being an inherent part of the process. Success doesn’t happen without some degree of failure.
There is no greater challenge than building a student’s confidence. Often, teachers have no idea what their previous experiences with education have been or what their personal situations are. Yet, the job of a teacher is to develop growth within each student and the icing on the cake is that each leave a classroom with a ‘CAN DO’ attitude. Confidence is the single most empowering motivator. This circles back to teachers knowing students. Working individually with students is the best way this can be achieved. Moreover, asking students to journal about the process of learning, so they can read back and actually see their growth unfold before them is powerful. It’s something they’ll take beyond this class into the future. And as teachers, isn’t that what we want? For students to grow, feel good about their growth which will empower them to seek growth in the future.
My ‘sort of’ mission statement for my teaching is something that has not changed since I’ve begun teaching nor is it something I foresee changing, in that I believe it with my whole heart.
Teaching English, for me, isn’t as much about reading and writing as it as about discovering oneself through the process. Do I want students to walk away from my course with an appreciation of the subject matter I’m teaching? Absolutely, it’s what teachers hope for. Do I want them to walk away more skilled than when they first entered my classroom? Of course, and I believe each and every one of them will. But more importantly, I want them to know themselves a little better than they did when first walking through my classroom door. I want them to learn to think critically about their world and their place in it, to decipher meaning from discourse (written, visual, media, humanity…) and to communicate what they think and feel effectively in a variety of ways. I want them to see themselves as doers, thinkers, collaborators, community contributors, entrepreneurs.