Teaching Strategies

A Retrospective on Favorite Teachers

October 12, 2014

I used to think that my favorite professor in college was a brilliant man whose words reoriented my understanding of the world around me.  Sitting in his class, whether it was a seminar or a lecture, was a mind-expanding experience, one that made me excited to learn more.  I have been extremely fortunate throughout my life to have had teachers who were smart and committed to me, both during my time in their classroom and beyond. My third, fourth, sixth, and 11th grade teachers all came to my college graduation party.  As a child, I thought that my teachers were the most fascinating and laudable adults I knew.  Now, as a teacher, as I constantly reflect on my own practice, I also retrospectively put the practice of my ‘favorites’ under the microscope as well.  I also look at my contemporary colleagues, trying to figure out why it is that some are favored in the eyes of the students, while others do well with parents, and others are validated by the principal, while others are well loved among coworkers? Depending on the criteria, I have found that teachers hold different ranks.  Whose affection is the most valid criteria for determining the worth of a teacher?

First I consider the paradigm through the lense of a student.  I look back on my favorite college professor and now realize that despite that fact that I hung on his every word, and left class feeling invigorated, I myself did not gain many skills during my time with him.  His thought provoking ideas evaporated pretty soon after I left his class. I remember feeling that my mind ‘was blown’ constantly when I listened to him, but today, not even a decade later, I can recall  few of the ideas that had this affect on me. I assume this is because I had no role in creating them.  His thoughts were interesting, but they didn’t stick in my mind because I didn’t have to do anything in order to reach them.  During seminars, students made comments in discussions to pass time, and eagerly waited for him to interject and treat us with his analysis. I realize now that he wasn’t a good teacher at all, because I can’t recall what I learned with him. At the time though, I adored him.

I also consider the lens of the student by observing my current students. One year, I saw a class of students grow obsessed with an authoritarian teacher who did not preserve their dignity, and ran the class by setting up a personality cult around herself.   Given the mistakes I made in admiring teachers, and the mistakes I have seen students make, I no longer think that student approval is the best way to evaluate the worth of a teacher, at least not in isolation.

I look at my experience in high school, and two teachers stand side by side. One teacher transformed my writing, at age 14, in numerous ways that I still draw upon. No one has taught as much, if anything, about writing, as he did my freshman year of high school. He was hard to please, and meticulous.  The growth I made in his course was measurable. I had another teacher who was equally important to me, at the time, and today, but whose value was very different. While he did not improve my writing, he did demand that I read literature with emotion, connection, and humor, and he insisted that we live our lives under the same tenants.  Long lasting lessons but impossible to measure. Recently, at a memorial service for him, I heard echoes of this take-away from students who had been in his class more than 20 years ago. It wasn’t the French or Shakespeare that made us love and appreciate Mr. Moore, it was that he used these content areas as a medium through which to show us how to live life in a committed and curious way. 

I know that there are a variety of ways to be a good teacher ( I am trying to relearn this lesson though, as my old network of schools had a methodology that produced cookie cutter teachers, a dangerous trend in settings where schools need to train inexperienced teachers).  As I try to piece together different parts of what I’ve seen, and incorporate what I want to see, I grow increasingly in awe of this art. It is not as mysterious as I once thought it was, but far more complicated than I ever imagined.  There are times when I feel deeply guilty that students are not leaving the class at the end of the day having “learned” anything through measurable data related to the content.  When I expressed this to Mr. Moore a few years ago, this was his response in an email:

“ You know what you were talking about on the card -- that feeling of guilt that you're not "teaching them anything..." I think a teacher has to take a leap of faith that he or she IS teaching something. There is no proper measurement of that (except the usual tests, and we know THEIR limitations...). There is no way a student would bump up against you and not learn something. And remember, as a teacher we are training their minds, opening up new vistas, seconding their strengths -- validating them as human beings with brains. I think one ought to turn the whole problem around, and as ludicrous as it sounds, ask oneself if one is happy with what one is doing. If you are happy, you are undoubtedly giving it your all, and enjoying the process. What more really can you do? I'm suggesting not to worry about "results," and enjoy the ride. If you are told by a boss you are not measuring up, work on whatever it might be, and try not to lose your equilibrium, and certainly not your sense of humor. I would not expect a teacher at year 2 to have everything down pat. There's a reason why the older, successful teachers are the way they are. Years in the trenches, refining skills, loving the unique experience that TEACHING is.”

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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