I have been reflecting a lot about teaching lately. I have two little kids in school now. And of course, at the far other end of the scholastic spectrum, I teach on the college level, to both undergraduates and graduate students. This personal and professional confluence has prompted me to wonder – what makes for a great teacher? What do the best teachers do?
These are complex questions. And I don’t pretend to have the solutions. But I do have some thoughts and ideas. I know this for certain: The emphasis on scores, placement, and standardization has hijacked the heart and soul from our education system. Learning must be engaging, fascinating, inspiring, and yes, even fun. Worksheets, tired, assigned texts, lesson-plans on autopilot, teachers who are afraid (or too lazy) to teach outside the curricular boundaries handed to them by their superiors, all add up to an uninspiring and, in many cases, bad classroom experience.
Ray Bradbury was the finest teacher I ever had, and I have had many great teachers over the years (see this blog post to read more about two of my best early instructors). What is, perhaps, most telling in Bradbury’s ability to instruct, was that he was not really a product of our traditional education system. He was an average student in high school. He never went to college. Instead, he was curious. This caused him to enrich himself, to learn on his own, and to seek out his education through untraditional means (most of this entailed going to the public library three nights a week for a decade and reading books). Furthermore, a big part of Ray Bradbury’s success was the fact that he stayed in touch with his inner-child. He created fearlessly, like a child does. He looked at the world with wonder, like a child does. I believe the traditional American education paradigm very often drains the child out of our children. Children are taught to behave, fall in line, follow the rules, color inside the lines, conform, conform, conform. Of course there are many great teachers who push beyond all of this, and that is what I’m getting at here.
Ray Bradbury often told me: “the best learning is the secret learning.” What he meant by this, of course, was that when a student’s curiosity is engaged, when they no longer feel as if they are being spoken to and taught, that is when the most impactful learning occurs. Learning should not feel like work, it should feel exciting!
I teach creative writing. I teach fiction classes, nonfiction classes, as well as literature and classes on publishing. From my point of view, it is not enough to teach a student a subject. Writing teachers must, obviously, teach their students the elements of good writing: clarity of language, structure, voice, audience awareness, point-of-view and all the rest. In some ways, this is the easy part. Some of this should have been acquired over the years, through “secret” learning, e.g.: READING. When an aspiring reader absolutely devours books, becomes consumed by books—falls in love with the reading experience—they are secretly learning the craft of storytelling!
But in many ways, as I have watched my students blossom into good writers (through a generative curricular approach of much writing and much reading, but done respecting their interests and passions), I have become acutely aware of the skills that are not emphasized as much in school, and they certainly are not measured on tests. And these skills are essential if a student wants to excel in the job market, as a writer or in any other career. These are elements of character, and you can’t learn them by filling in little ovals with a No. 2 pencil.
Curiosity. Communication skills. Confidence. Motivation. Discipline. Empathy. Sense of Beauty. Humility. Gratitude. Passion.
Can these things be taught? To a large degree, I think they are personality traits that come from genetics and the early childhood environment. But I do believe a good teacher can foster these attributes. A teacher needs to be a good listener, first and foremost. Teaching is most certainly not just about standing before a group of kids and talking. That’s when students have a tendency to tune out, in fact. Good teachers engage their students in a dialogue, a back and forth, where the student feels empowered to contribute, to speak up, to share their opinions, and if they feel they are being listened to, odds are they will listen back. When a teacher listens to the individual, as well as the group needs of a class, a teacher can then make identifications. Does a student need to be drawn from their shell? Does a student lack passions or interests? Does a student have a poor work ethic? Does a student know how to confidently express himself?
Once these needs can be identified, a teacher can then work towards building these all-important skills.
You might ask, okay, how does a teacher work on, for example, a student’s lack-of-motivation? Positive reinforcement is important. We all need to be recognized and appreciated when we do a job well done. Students are no different. When they are congratulated for success, it makes them want more of it. Negative motivation generally does not work. No one wants to follow through on completing a project after they have been told they are a failure, or that they “better do a good job or else.” This sort of threat-education makes learning a drag. When a student does good work, it is vital to recognize it. And this means more than gold stars. Teachers need to articulate why the job was done well.
Next, students need to be encouraged and reminded that they should “aim up” with their network of peers. Commiserating with motivated people certainly does not hurt. We all remember when Mom said, “I don’t want you hanging out with that friend. He is trouble.” Well, the opposite holds true. Hang out with disciplined, excited, motivated friends. Maybe it will wear off.
The next thing a teacher can do with a lackluster student is to allow the student to pursue their interests and passions and find a way, when possible, to apply these passions to the assignments. Certainly this isn’t always possible, but too many teachers do not adapt, evolve, or allow for an emergent curriculum to flow in the direction of the interests of the students. Passion and excitement is everything! Once a student is into a subject or a field of study, you have them! And once an initial passion is identified, encouraged, and fostered, it often promotes an exploration into more passion and excitement and interests.
Here’s an example: I was introduced as a child to jazz music through, of all things, the Charlie Brown Christmas television special. I fell in love with the music of the Vince Guaraldi Trio who performed the music for this seminal holiday classic. This prompted me to seek out similar jazz trios, then, to branch out and explore other forms of jazz: bop, cool, acid, big band, and more. Along the way, I had acquired a education in jazz history and culture. I had secretly learned.
And, as a wise man once said, that’s the best sort of learning there is.