When I teach writing, I sometimes talk about a list of rules students should form in their heads. This imaginary list may include silly items—“#37. Don’t start consecutive paragraphs with the same word”—and cosmic ones—“#83. Detail and explanation are the bricks and mortar of effective prose.” Some rules will come from their instructors and some from their own invention. However, two rules belong on every list: first, whatever the source, every rule is ultimately yours and, second, the list must never be final.
I’ve been gathering teaching rules much the same way. Educational approaches come in infinite diversity and follow infinite fashions, but every successful teacher finds his or her own way. If you replay memories of effective grade school, high school, and college teachers, you find a baffling variety of approaches, affects, and styles.
During Dr. Fosso’s lectures on Shakespeare, no one spoke. I sometimes fantasized about doing the unthinkable and raising my hand to ask a question or make a comment, but every moment he wasn’t speaking seemed wasted time. Yet imagining Ms. Raulerson speaking for more than three minutes was equally unthinkable. Her classroom was a busy marketplace, the trade of observations and information so practiced and shrewd you often ended-up with perceptions you never thought to possess.
Ms. Raulerson and Dr. Fosso do not even belong in the same educational universe. The success of one seems to preclude the success of another. Nothing is more frightening to me than politicians talking about the importance of training effective teachers because I worry how they might define and restrict “effective” and whether they will allow for the traits Dr. Fosso and Ms. Raulerson shared: knowing what their students needed and understanding what they, as human beings, had to give.
Early in my career, I imitated my best teachers and was very lost. I didn’t reach any class until I suited methods I’d learned to my own personality and found my way to sincerity. Teacher training will only work if it focuses on developing self-assurance. Good teachers make a student feel he or she is in confident hands, with guides who know many routes and have spent years noting the best ones. These guides find their way of doing their best.
Teaching is challenging, fascinating, amusing, and sometimes frustrating because you never get it entirely right. Occasionally, I think I’ve found teaching rules fit for all humanity, but that feeling never lasts. You have to be grateful to have so much more experimenting to do.
In The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes tells a story of waking up in a heaven where life is infinitely perfectible. By the end, the narrator shoots a round of golf in 18, runs a marathon in a few minutes…and is terminally bored. Still trying to get it right—however fine the tuning is—is vital to a great teacher.
My best days are playful and new. Students sometimes regard school as a holding cell before life, a funnel through which everyone must pass. To take risks and stretch themselves, they need to see school can be stimulating and satisfying. No teacher training protocols or educational strategies for differentiated instruction or mentored classroom management will succeed if you can’t create a real sense of joy.
The best teachers search for interesting lessons, useful instruments to assess understanding, and thoughtful means to connect academics and reality. I’m not sure you can teach desire or create the abiding curiosity that, whatever their different styles, teachers need. If a teacher doesn’t find genuine pleasure in learning, I’m not sure what training will work.
The most important question isn’t whether to use smartboards or what’s necessary to a cooperative learning environment or how to institute project-based learning but, fundamentally, “What am I doing here?” If you can ask and answer that question every day, your list of what makes an effective teacher will grow and change like a living thing.