October 21, 2016 – I’ve been thinking about the question of what makes for a great teacher because one of my students recently commented: “The greatest teacher is the one who is present at the moment of your greatest need, not the one with the most golden apples”. Her observation, offered in the midst of a spontaneous class discussion, captures much of the essence of good teaching. Greatness is not really something that can be planned or trained for using a rigid series of instructional protocols. It is not even a quality that can be mastered through the acquisition of external accolades, although it is important for good teaching to be rewarded and lifted up. Greatness, emerges amidst the unpredictable alchemy of a teacher who is “listening” deeply to the needs (intellectual, emotional and spiritual) of her students and a learner who is willing to be vulnerable and open to a teacher/student relationship that goes beyond content and technique. Parker Palmer, who is a noted author on education, calls this the distinction between teachers who fully show up and are “authentic” and teachers who are just “phoning it in” and playing at the role of educator.
What makes for a great teacher? How do you know one when you see one? When you think back across your educational experiences who stands out and why? Is the greatest teacher the one who knew the most content knowledge? How about the teacher who spent extra time with you because you were struggling with an assignment? Maybe it was the teacher who created a classroom climate that allowed you to explore some aspect of your personal life that you always wanted to know more about. And it might have even been the teacher who pushed you hard because you were capable of more, praised you for your hard work and ability to rise to the challenge, and still gave you the only “B” in your educational career.
My greatest teachers come in many forms and represent several competing ways of understanding the craft of teaching. I only remember two or three teachers across my K-12 experience, which is often surprising to me given my interest in education. My high school Chemistry teacher was noteworthy for his daily ritual of walking into class, opening a jar of instant coffee, dumping a good amount into a stained mug and heating it up with hot water from the tap. I learned or at least retained little knowledge of chemistry but he did teach me, through negative example, the importance of passion, interest and authenticity for the work of teaching. While in college I had a mentor who took me aside one day and talked to me about the importance of communication and following through on commitments. Without his thoughtful and challenging feedback I would have continued to perform below my potential as an educator. His greatness as a teacher was his authenticity and ability to call out my gifts and hold me to standard commensurate with my native skills. I’m deeply indebted to all my great teachers. Thanks.