Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Good Teaching Defined

Last night I had the honor and the privilege of meeting with one of my favorite colleagues at the home of one of my favorite persons. The purpose of the re-scheduled meeting was to flesh out what qualities and characteristics defined good teaching. In fact, we met to discuss what distinguishes good teaching from exceptional teaching. You can imagine how reluctant I might have been to have been invited to such an intimate symposium in which I was considered an expert on the topic. I attended with the mindset that I would do nothing but open my mouth and let the words come out.

I have had the fortune of academic successes and accolades, but when I'm asked the question as to what makes me good at what I do, I honestly don't know how to answer or react. I learn the students' names, although it takes me several weeks. I face the students when instructing them. I speak in English . . . most of the time. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I am tenuous when defining greatness. I do what I do because it's the only way I know. I've seen bad teaching, or what I would judge to be so, and I have seen great teaching. I know that student's respond much better to good-looking teachers, so that's obviously not MY secret. Students like teachers who make fool-proof multiple choice, scantron tests (such as the following NO CALCULATOR question "What is 6+7? (A) 13 (B) Columbus (C) Choose (A)!!)"), or, better yet, hand out free 100s at the door. So that's not my secret either.

Most students who remember teachers from their school years typically do so, not because they were "hot" (yes they do!) or because they were functionally competent. They remember them because they were able to imbue them with a lasting impression of palpable value. In my case, I think its just because I tell corny jokes, then laugh at myself. But I think this method to my madness is precisely why I'm so successful at what I do. I'm willing to act the fool to make the experiences memorable to my students. My students know better than to think a person that can clearly demonstrate how a figure can have a finite volume but infinite surface area AND talk about Torricelli as something other than a pasta is really as goofy as he seems. Those arithmetical errors he's making MUST be deliberate.

Forced to metacognitively think about things I don't like to think about, I discovered that good instruction is nothing more than selfish fun. It is fearlessness combined with deep, comprehensive knowledge of one's subject. It is acting, but it is also sincere. It is sincere acting. It is emotive passion and infectious enthusiasm. A good teacher believes his subject is the most important subject on campus. Good teaching knows the audience and realizes the obligation to first captivate before coaching. It's all about establishing relationships (which is a strange admission coming from a guy who is not a touchy-feely guy.)

The enduring quotes compare teacher to all kinds of clever things. A beacon, a door opener, a tuna fish sandwhich (don't ask me to explain THAT one), and a candle. I think a teacher is nothing more than someone who themselves love learning, loves kids, and loves the stage. Good teachers teach because they HAVE to. They are the same people that when you ask for advice or how to do something don't know when to stop.

I think of how I live my life outside the classroom, and I realize I do it as a teacher, always feeling obligated to make everyone and everything better for having come into contact with me. Sure, the public speaker who says, "Please contact Joe, Sue, or myself if you have any questions," feels awkward when I yell out, "It's me!! only me!! not myself. You haven't previously referred to yourself in that statement so you cannot use the reflexive pronoun!! You must consider the statement as if it were you and you alone, 'Please contact myself. . . '" Yeah, I do that. When someone in traffic doesn't yield, or when someone's in the express lane with 11 items, I feel an urge to didactically direct them toward the correct path. This personality "flaw" cost me several roommates in college (whose filthy habits were a constant source of solicitude.)

But I digest . . .

The bottom line is that I love imparting wisdom. I love math. I love learning. I love kids. and . . I love to laugh and have fun. Call me selfish, call me self-righteous, just don't call me Shirley.

Can you bottle good teaching? No. It is rather something that must be unbottled.


Anonymous said...

I think you have defined it as well as anyone. I particularly agree that acting and an in-depth knowledge of your subject are critical components of good teaching. Honest, high standards are also a key component of the good teacher. Those teachers and mentors through the years that I remember and respect were those that asked the most from me, not those that just handed me a good grade or undeserved accolades for merely meeting a ridicously low standard.

kwkorpi said...

You're absolutely correct! I guess I just take high standards as a given component of good teaching.