Monday, April 14, 2008

What is good teaching?

Noel Coward once quipped, when asked how one of his plays went on opening night, "The play was a great success. The audience, however, was a total disaster." Sometimes I feel like this after delivering what I believe to be a great lesson, only to have the class miserably fail the quiz the next day. Knowing how much effort, energy, passion, and enthusiasm into my work, I can easily defend my methods as a "success" even when the students have failed to grasp the material. "I can't help it if they don't pay attention . . . . I can't make them do the work required to master it . . . The problem is on their end," I tell myself.

To a great extent, much of this is true. As the proverb goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Some of these students have not fully committed themselves to learn the material, opting instead for a passive, unambitious role in procuring their own education. Those who are resolved to learn do very well in my classes. I have been told by numerous students and parents how they appreciate and favor my teaching style and methods. Quantitative results are even their to back it up. But in the end, as a professional educator, it is my job to teach students, so dismissing the difficult or unwilling is an easy cop out. When the class average on a chapter test falls to a 43 in a PreAP class, I can't help but fault myself for not impressing the material's importance upon the students, for not motivating them enough, for not pushing them harder, if not for doing my job delivering the curriculum.

I usually remedy this by an entire period of lecturing AT them, rather than TO them, followed by a reteach and repractice session, in which I ride them incessantly. This not only gives them another chance to learn the material but it reinforces eminent imminence of mathematics. It also reinforces them negatively: "don't like math? don't like to learn? Then you'll get more math problems and more learning until you do." This philosophy has really taken off public education with the high-stakes testing: "The beatings will continue until morale (and test scores) improve."

So what makes good teaching? Bad teaching would involve being too proud to admit that one could get better. Good teaching involves much much more than delivering an award winning 90 minute oration on solving first-order differential equations. It requires humility, restraint, and flexibility. I requires ingenuity, the ability to motivate, coax, or cajole kids into learning. It requires a lot of time, patience, humor, and possibly medication (at 34 years old, I've already been on blood pressure medicine for 8 years, about as long as I've been teaching!)

Sure, there will always be those students who go out of their way to NOT learn, these are the ones that, when they enter college, will have to learn the lesson the hard way, paying for it with wasted tuition costs, wasted time, and wasted opportunities (of which there are plenty in college.)

And so I continue to open my classroom doors each morning at 6:00am, providing a lighted beacon in the early morning dark for those very few who venture from the cozy comfort of their beds to the hallowed halls of mathematical excellence. After all, you can lead a boy to college, but you can't make him think. At least you can salt a horse's oats to make him drink.


bob s said...

I guess the danger zone appears when you hae done this so long you refuse to consider yourself part of the problem. I think you are right, all good teachers ask themselves, if only in the back recesses of their own minds, how did I contribute to this failure.

kwkorpi said...

You're right, though. At some point, the student is responsible for his own failure, but having the mind-set of "it's not my problem" is a categorical and philosophical detriment to educational goals. This view only becomes increasingly difficult to espouse with each new day.

I know you're retiring Bob. I just hope I can make it that long. Kudos to you for your great service in your many years in your second profession. I'll admit, I'll be thinking of you next year!