Good teachers are a rare, precious commodity

But beware: like onions and fungi, bad teachers come in different varieties but all will spoil a student's zest for learning

bad teachersTORONTO, Ont. Nov. 3, 2016/ Troy Media/ – If you want to turn students off a topic, teach it in school.

The reasons are many, but one stands above the rest: bad teaching.

Like onions and fungi, bad teachers come in different varieties.

Bad teachers of the authoritarian variety turn classrooms into fiefdoms they rule as petty tyrants. Students who suffer these teachers often turn into people who are either stifled by rules or totally undisciplined. Neither is good.

Bad teachers of the passionless variety – let’s call them bored – offer students something different: stunted curiosity and an impoverished intellect. Students who encounter too many bored teachers can develop a taste for mediocrity. They will hunger for pablum.

A third category of bad teachers: good teachers who went bad. They start out energized and see education as Socrates saw it: as the lighting of fires, not the filling of buckets.

But at some point, these teachers lose their fire, focus, purpose and passion. Instead of living their vocation, they end up filling students with lesson plans designed by curriculum writers in government offices.

Can we blame these teachers?

With standardized testing a key measurement of their success, some teachers resort to rote instruction to communicate the set curriculum.

Add other obstacles to the mix – absent parents, bureaucratic administrators, execrable union politics, digital distractions, and authoritarian and bored colleagues – and teaching can become a spirit-crushing grind far removed from its purpose.

This explains why we sometimes hear teachers say, “If I can reach one student, I know I’ve done my job,” because under these conditions, one is better than none.

Not all is gloomy. Good teachers still walk the earth. I count myself blessed for having encountered several good teachers in my schooling. They fashioned my mind and heart for the better.

My Grade 11 English instructor was such a teacher. Mrs. Clatworthy was like her name sounded: a clattering suit of armour, stern without being humourless, possessing a sharp and gleaming intellect. She established her authority on the first day with a wicked glare and in the following days by sharing with us what she knew. I learned from her; she changed me. Not only do I remember her as a person (she was far warmer and caring than her clanging name suggests) but more than 20 years later, I still remember many of the lessons she taught.

And so, I wonder, what makes a teacher good?

Good teachers stand up. They stand for their academic discipline and the knowledge they have been given. They believe in what they teach and they profess their beliefs. Because they believe in what they teach, they hold the standards of their discipline high.

They also stand for the student, who one day will stand for the discipline. To stand for the student means demanding rigour. That is one of the ways teachers show respect to students and the institutions they serve.

Good teachers also cultivate an environment conducive to learning. In practical terms, this means imposing order, putting up walls between what belongs in the classroom and what does not. To take one example, imposing order may mean outlawing smartphones from a classroom. Why? Because smartphones are like babies: they demand constant attention and usually get it.

Good teachers build constructive learning environments by giving students a space where they can speak their minds, work out their thoughts, be wrong and receive correction – without fear of penalty or intimidation by their peers or outside concerns. Classrooms are safest when students can learn from what they think, say and do wrong.

I revise my earlier statement. If you want to turn students off a topic, ask a bad teacher to show students the way.

But if you want to turn students on to a topic – that means turning them on to knowledge – give them to that rarest and most important of mentors: a good teacher.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. Robert is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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