Today, another exquisite article in the New York Times Magazine, called "Building a Better Teacher."
Decades of educational discussion and crisis remediation attempts have taken us to wondrous lands of ideology, deserts of testing, winding paths of experimental technologies. It brought us teacher assessments and merit pay, charter schools and busses shuttling students around. Study after study has promised to show the way, but it seems we're still in the dark: None has produced the necessary yield or the desired lift in performance.
Could it be because most innovations, improvements and ideologies leave the student component out of the equation? I know, I know... it is politically incorrect to include student attitudes and mind set in the calculation. It has become deeply ingrained in our culture to look at students as consumers, vessels to be filled, projection screens for our instructional finesse. Student failure by definition is always a teacher failure, an institutional failure, a societal failure.
And, I guess, it is, but not in the way we have come to look at it. Students don't fail because we don't make it easy or fun enough to learn. They fail because we allow them to look at education as something to be consumed, something that is separate and only marginally relevant to their lives.
The NYT article finds that teachers are the single most important factor influencing student achievement and that being a successful, student-boosting teacher could not really be taught. It made me reflect back on my time as a student. Why was it that we adored some teachers, while instantly, almost intuitively, deciding to sabotage others?
The teachers we despised were the ones that acted like they were working hard to teach us. Their attempts to make the material "easy" were often unnecessary, which made them insulting.
Their countless repetitions in reaction to low student involvement were boring. If there were no signs that we cared in the first time, what makes you think we'd care the second, third, or fourth time around? The problem was not whether the material was hard or not, it was that we weren't convinced that there was a reason why we should care. You could sense in their attitudes that they considered us malleable, helpless children, potentially low-witted, not the developing, perceptive people we actually were.
The teachers we adored were the ones who challenged us, sometimes to the point where it was painful. They would make us work hard, but not because they were mean (we had those, too) but because they believed in our potential. They made us understand that they wanted us to succeed. They had very high expectations of us. They asked the ultimate questions, and always set the bar at a good, healthy, hard-to-achieve height for each student. Most of all they trusted us, conveying that every student could achieve it with the right amount of "try."
The most important characteristic of a successful teacher is that they care. The second - they have to have natural authority and leadership, a sense that they are resting in themselves, know their own self-worth, and can interact with a mixed bunch of diverse students from a "calm-assertive" position (as Cesar Milan would say). It would take us just seconds to figure out a new teacher entering the classroom: Did s/he possess "teacher power"? Was it the benevolent or the dangerous type? Was he a leader, who could challenge you in the best sense of the word, or a push-over, who would drop the ball as soon as the students started challenging them?