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A Good Teacher is...?

kgould's picture

Teaching Teachers

It’s a curious thought, isn’t it, the idea of teaching how to teach? The self-reflexivity lends to itself a certain level of confusion, of uncertainty; one teaches what one knows, but how does one learn to teach? In Elizabeth Green’s New York Times article, education expert Doug Lemov puzzles over just that, how to teach and to teach teachers in the act of teaching.

Some believe there is an innate talent for teaching—you either have it or you don’t. But what does that mean for the dwindling labor pool of educators? If you don’t have it, can you hope to improve or should you just hang up the chalk?

Merit Pay

Some think incentives are the way to go. Certainly, merit pay has its benefits; with the promise of a larger income, some hope that the labor pool will expand out to other professionals who would pick teaching over law or engineering or medicine… But that, too, is a problem. Within the next four years, school systems across the country will have to hire as many as a million new teachers. How can the education system attract enough qualified, innate teachers?...
Lemov mentions, too, that incentives alone are not enough to change the problems in the classroom. These teachers care about their students and want to help, the problem is that they don’t know how to change their teaching strategy.

Lemov proposes that “The smarter path to boosting student performance is to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.” That’s all well and good, but the question is how? What makes a good teacher?

What Makes a Good Teacher?

The studies are still out on that, as there is no correlation to “good teacher” and something like graduate-school degree, high SAT scores, extroversion, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm, or passing the teacher-certification exam on the first try.  
I had to sit back and think about the best teachers that I had in public school, before coming to college:

  • 8th and 12th grade Natural Sciences/ AP Biology teacher
  • High school (9th through 12th) Art teachers (three team-teaching)
  • 9th, 10th, and 11th grade Honors and AP English teacher
  • 10th grade Honors Biology teacher
  • 11th grade Honors Chemistry teacher
  • 12th grade Honors Physics teacher
  • 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher

Because it would take a while to explain why each and every teacher listed here was so great, I’ve chosen to only talk about the characteristics of my art teachers.

High School Art Teachers (9-12)
I took several art classes a year all throughout my high school career, also taking summer courses that they offered. The three teachers that I had were there for all four years and I got to know them well, and them me as well.
There were two male teachers, one in his mid-thirties and the other in his late twenties, and one female teacher who was in her mid-thirties. The two older teachers had been teaching for a long time, had gone to high school locally, and had gotten their Masters in Education and Fine Arts some time ago.  The man went to an Art college, while the woman went to UMass Amherst for Art Education. The younger man had worked in an animal lab up until recently, switching into education and working towards his Masters.

The environment was different than that of my other classrooms. The two connected rooms were set up in a series of tables and counters, sinks, and easels, with all different classes and levels mixed in together (first year Art students sitting with AP Art students, Painting II students with Sculpting I students, etc). It was great to see older, more experienced students working next to you, to see how they went about their work, the techniques they used—and it was great to reinforce your knowledge and style by assisting younger, less experienced students.

There was always music playing in the background on a stereo system; I can fondly remember listening to a Michael Jackson CD on repeat through the summer and into the first two terms of my junior year. (When I hear the music now, I often get the itch to draw.)

While you were entered into a class under one teacher, all three teachers worked with all of the students, moving around the room and helping students as they needed it, offering constructive criticism to older students, admiring artwork drying on the racks. It was good to have three sets of eyes looking over your shoulder rather than one set and it was good to have three different instructors to go to, depending on the medium and the style, each having different strengths and weaknesses.
Every week, for one of the periods, students would set up their works-in-progress and the whole class would critique them, discussing the strengths and weaknesses, teachers making sure to use art terminology to describe the pieces. Again, having students of different ages and skill levels was great because you got lots of different tips and feedback.
Once a piece was finished, or so we thought, we had to fill out an “Am I Done?” sheet, which included a written description of the piece, the styles and techniques used, the medium, the inspiration behind it, and so on. The reflection period was important for reinforcing our knowledge of art techniques and criticism.

You started, in the first few courses, with very clear-cut assignments: perspective drawings, still lifes, and an hour worth of drawing homework every week kept in a drawing notebook. As you moved up through the classes and started taking more specific courses (Photography, Watercolors, Fashion Design, etc) you began to direct your choices more and more—with the aid and advice of the teachers. As your talent and experience grew, the teachers gave you more leniency and individual freedom to choose projects and work with different ideas, all working towards a huge art show at the end of the year. Your portfolio would be presented, all work hung up in the gymnasium complete with page-long reflection essays and awards would be handed out, and parents would come to view the exhibits for a few nights.

There was an art calendar composed and sold at the end of every year: my freshman year, a piece of mine was chosen for February, a blue monochromatic painting done in tempera paint of King Tut’s sarcophagus. I knew, then, that I was hooked on Art classes. The honor that went along with being chosen for one of twelve pieces to be published and sold for fundraising made me feel so good—it made me want to try more, diverse projects.
And in my senior year of high school, while I didn’t take AP Art, I did manage to get a blue ribbon for a batik of a National Geographic photograph of a young man from Tibet. I still have all of my art projects at home and my parents are planning on framing them and using them in our house.
Those teachers made me want to go to art school, made me feel like I was good at something, made me want to do for others what they did for me. And while I am not at art school or going into art education (for now), drawing and painting is still a huge part of my life. I suspect it always will be.

Things They Did Right:

  • Group teaching (Three teachers together)
  • Group learning (Different levels of students together)
  • Reward system/ Positive reinforcement
  • Constructive criticism from both instructors and peers
  • Increasing responsibilities/ freedom as focus and level of work increase