Great Teachers

October 2nd, 2013

Transforming Lives

“Research confirms that great teachers change lives,” writes Wendy Kopp. “Students with one highly effective elementary school teacher are more likely to go to college, less likely to become pregnant as teens and earn tens of thousands more over their lifetimes.” Kopp believes in the importance of teaching. She started Teach for America, an organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach in high-need schools for two years. Kopp asserts that given the choice between giving every child a laptop or putting an exceptional teacher in a classroom, “there’s no question which is the better investment.”

I was blessed to have many good teachers, though three in particular stand out as exceptional. All three not only imparted information, but they also helped transform my life.

Mrs. Minuti selected me to be one of the coeditors of her third grade classroom newspaper. She recognized that I loved to write and was always asking questions. Working on the newspaper provided a forum for my interest in writing and a positive channel for my curiosity. Did Mrs. Minuti always have a newspaper as part of her class, or did she start one that year because some of her students loved to write? I don’t know. Either way, that newspaper was the start of my passion for journalism. Mr. DiMaio’s fifth grade classroom was often filled with laughter, both his and his students. The fun of learning was reflected in the creative grades he assigned on report cards. In addition to grades in mathematics, spelling, reading, and other traditional subjects, I received a well-earned A+++ in talking and a merciful D - - in handwriting.

Mr. DiMaio gave us the attention we needed to thrive, including more challenging assignments for those like myself who were easily bored and prone to get into trouble. For one social studies unit, we were to write on any topic of our choosing, as long as he approved it. My topic, reporting on all the states west of the Mississippi River, kept me engaged and out of trouble.

My favorite teacher in high school was Dr. Crum, who taught 11th grade American history. Dr. Crum’s teaching method went beyond the recitation of facts. He helped us wrestle with why things happened and see the consequences of past actions, including some repercussions that could be discerned in our own time. He encouraged us to use fact-based reasoning and guided us to write well. Toward the end of my junior year, Dr. Crum agreed to teach what for him would be a brand-new course: modern European history. He spent the next summer refreshing his understanding of European history and preparing lesson plans, all because a number of students asked him to teach. Taking those two high school history classes provided me with a strong foundation for college courses as a journalism major and history minor.

All three of these exceptional teachers also held me accountable. I remember Mrs. Minuti having me stay after school for teasing a classmate. Mr. DiMaio had me pick up trash on the playground during more than one recess when my behavior crossed the line. And when I took advantage of my freedom, Dr. Crum sent me to the main office––the only time I had to see one of the high school principals for disciplinary reasons.

Characteristics of Great Teachers

What makes a teacher a great teacher? If you ask ten people, most likely you will hear ten different answers. Several experts identify characteristics consistent with the examples of Mrs. Minuti, Mr. DiMaio, and Dr. Crum.

“Much of what makes a great teacher today is the same as it has always been,” says Art Jarvis, superintendent of Tacoma (Washington) Public Schools. Jarvis says that a great teacher exhibits a passion for the subject area, a caring for students, and an ability to engage students in a fun way so they are receptive to learn. He also says that a great teacher today is able to use technology to access knowledge and teach students to do the same.

“Great teachers love what they do and perceive teaching as their calling,” says Neil Pedersen, the superintendent of Chapel Hill–Carrboro (North Carolina) City Schools. Pedersen says that a great teacher focuses on helping students succeed and will do whatever is needed to help each student thrive.

“Great teachers are empathetic and engaged,” says Keith Lutz, superintendent of Millard (Nebraska) Public Schools. A great teacher likes kids, is flexible, works collaboratively with other teachers, and looks forward to coming to school every day.

A good teacher is organized, firm, professional, and can create a classroom environment “where students are safe to risk learning,” says Jose Torres, superintendent of School District U-46 in Elgin, Illinois. “A great teacher is good, but a lot more. Great teachers seem to capture the artistry and science of teaching.”

Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a Philadelphia high school, writes that a great teacher needs “enough ego to survive the hard days. The tough days will leave you curled up under a desk, convinced that you can’t teach or the world is too hard for these kids or the work is too much or whatever the problem was that day.” Lehmann adds that a great teacher also needs “enough humility to remember it’s not about you. It’s about the kids. If your ego rules the classroom, if the class turns into ‘me vs. them’ or if you can’t understand that a sixteen year old might be able to tell you something you don’t know, then don’t teach.”

Promises and Limits of Technology

The advent of new technology opens new educational possibilities. Online education and other non traditional models promise to deliver more information at a lower cost than having a teacher in front of a room full of students. Yet Steve and Cokie Roberts assert that the new methods “will never replace the priceless value of human interaction between a caring teacher and a curious student.” Education is more than the dissemination of information. “Learning is also about analysis, communication, critical thinking,” skills that are best learned in exchanges between teachers and students.

Wendy Kopp of Teach for America argues that while technology “has enormous potential to address educational needs more efficiently, help teachers improve their performance and enrich and individualize student learning,” education leaders need to focus primarily on people. “We can’t outsource the human connections at the heart of the learning experience. Transforming the lives and learning of our children will take more than machines. It will take the best of our human resources.”

Several years ago, I bought videos of two college-level courses taught by what were billed as well-respected college professors. I eagerly viewed the first lectures of one course, and the information that professor presented was indeed stellar. Yet I found that the information was not enough. I missed the live interaction with the professor and classmates. I couldn’t ask questions or listen in on the questions of others. The professor could not tell from my body language whether or not I was following him and change tactics if he needed to make his point another way. I didn’t finish that course, and I have yet to start the other one.

Christians have long valued great teachers, including Jesus himself. God did not merely send us a scroll, a book, a video, or a link to a website; God sent Jesus, the Word made flesh, so we could connect with God in human form. Learning through human connection is part of our incarnational faith. The early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42), and that teaching continues to our own day.

Congregations can support teachers in various ways. As a pastor, I frequently prayed for students, teachers, school administrators, and staff during worship, and not just at the start of a new school year. One church I served honored teachers in the community by giving each educator a thank-you note along with homemade chocolate chip cookies. Another church I served cosponsored an annual back-to-school rally for teachers and students, plus a blessing of teachers at the start of the new school year.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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