May 2, 2013

What Makes A Great Teacher?

This week a compelling letter was published in the New York Times.  Given the headline “Invitation to a Dialogue: The Art of Teaching”, the letter poses an outstanding question. It asks: “What makes a great teacher?”

This is a particularly relevant question for me at this time of year, as our faculty conducts initial interviews for our soon-to-be-vacant music and Spanish positions.  As a Head of School, what qualities do I look for in a teacher?  The author of the letter suggests that good teachers are creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending. Often it is the least orthodox teacher who most engages and excites students.”

We all remember that one special teacher we had as a child who was less than orthodox and who bent the rules.  While I have less than fond memories of a science teacher I once had in boarding school who thrived on throwing his wooden blackboard eraser at students (I think that was criminal activity more than rule bending), I do know I was inspired to teach partly by my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Arnold. He regularly ditched his drab classroom and brought classes to his apartment on campus and challenged us to debate the spiritual elements contained in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.  I learned more about myself and how to think in those classes than any other.

At Friends’ I love encouraging our teachers to be creative, independent, and spontaneous.  The results are the dynamic, integrated learning experiences that I highlight regularly in this column:  castle stormings, poetry readings, school-wide elections, dramatic performances, library trips, and finding those teachable moments that no one saw coming.  Great and experienced teachers know those when they see them and seize the moment.

Last Friday I was leading a seminar for our 30 Teacher Candidates on the subject of Surviving Your First Year of Teaching. The seminar covered a lot of ground.  There’s a lot that new teachers need to know to be successful.   Although in seminar we did not focus on the pedagogical tools that the TCs have been learning all year – the techniques and systems of effective teaching.  Instead, we focused on what our TCs already have within themselves: passion, flexibility, creativity, caring, balance, determination, questioning, humor, and energy.

Those are among the qualities that we saw in our new lead teacher hires, Tyler Voorhees and Mary Pearsall.

The letter to the editor also mentions how important it is that teachers should intern for a year under the supervision of a talented mentor teacher”.  That’s exactly how it works in Friends’ Teacher Preparation Program
Co-director Shelby Pawlina was inspired yesterday to respond to the Invitation to Dialogue.  In her response to the New York Times, she wrote: A system that provides scaffolding for the gradual release of responsibility in combination with daily coaching, feedback and support is one that understands the intricacies and challenges of becoming a great teacher. 
Knowing how to create a classroom where students are safe to take academic and social risks, share who they are, and practice respectful interpersonal problem solving is indeed an art and is a sign of one of those great teachers.
Add solid critical reflection on those difficult moments in class and you have a great teacher with a consistently upward learning curve.”

That’s exactly what Shelby, and her co-director Ed Walent, encourage in our Teacher Candidates every day.  The TCs graduate in a few weeks.  We know there are great teachers among them.

In your opinion, what makes a great teacher?

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