Published Online: April 16, 1997


The 'Who' of Teaching

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Who we are matters to our teaching every bit as much as what we teach and how we choose to teach it.

Those of us who teach have little difficulty in identifying the "what" and "how" of teaching. We recognize them by their conventional names--"content" and "method." And the debate about their relative importance in the preparation and everyday practice of teachers continues to command attention today, just as it has preoccupied educators for almost three millennia.

To be sure, most of us agree on the importance of both content and method to teachers' effectiveness; teaching, we correctly say, is inconceivable without both. But we differ, and probably always will, on the desirable balance between the two. Those who prepare teachers are likely to favor one at the expense of the other; and those, like us, who have taught, seem to obey an internal sense of the just proportion of each while improvising in the classroom and trying to maintain our knowledge and effectiveness through "in-service" and other programs. Meanwhile, that third component of teaching--the "who" of teaching--goes largely neglected, as it always has.

Yet the truth is that who we are matters to our teaching every bit as much as what we teach and how we choose to teach it. In fact, our characters and personalities determine the quality and effectiveness of our teaching long before what we know and how we present it even come into play. Questions about their teachers, especially about their personal qualities, crowd into our students' minds before they're conscious of the fact: Who is this person? Do I like (or dislike) her? What do I like (or dislike) about him? How can I find out more about her? It is the qualities of our selves and characters that are immediately on display when we try to instruct other people, whether they be kindergarten pupils, graduate students, our own children, or employees and colleagues, and it is these qualities, as much as our knowledge and techniques, that are likely to count in determining our effectiveness with any students. Yet we rarely think about these qualities, are never introduced to them as we try to become teachers, and we are scarcely ever encouraged to discuss them as we pursue our careers in the classroom.

This occurs in the face of the overwhelming weight of our memories. We recall the great teachers of our lives principally as characters--for the stories they told, the distinctive ways they kept order, their extraordinary hold on our attention, their gravitas, or their mannerisms and expressions--rather than for what they knew or how they taught us, which we are likely to have forgotten. These teachers seemed great as human beings before we knew them as superb scholars or ingenious instructors. "Who you are," a student once remarked to a teacher, "speaks so loudly that I cannot hear a word you say." Nor were the teachers we most disliked necessarily poor scholars or inadequate in the arts of presentation; they just seemed unappealing to us as people; there was something about them that did not "fit" with our own personalities. And thus it always seems to be: Effective, surely great, teaching is composed of more than just knowledge or method; it is fashioned out of spirit and personality, out of qualities inherent in all of us. We forget these human elements of teaching at our peril. Worse, by ignoring them, we do great injury to our students.

Knowledge of subject and knowledge of technique are taken to be the only prerequisites to becoming a teacher. Knowledge of self is considered irrelevant.

Teaching is such a common activity that it is usually taken for granted--at least until, as today, we decide, whether correctly or not, that it is being done so badly. Perhaps because all of us, as parents, colleagues, or supervisors, teach something to someone else now and then, we assume that there is nothing particularly complicated about instructing others; it is something that anyone can do. There seems nothing very difficult or inexplicable about it. Just get up there, we are inclined to urge the uninitiated, and do it. Yet in fact even to the most experienced and gifted teachers, teaching's true nature remains largely mysterious--or at least indefinable. We do not understand completely what makes for effective teaching. We cannot figure out why some people are better at it than others. And we do not know how to ensure the creation of effective teachers out of those who aspire to become teachers--as if we could turn out teachers as an assembly line turns out dependable and identical goods anyway.

Yet rather than taking the mystery of teaching as a telltale sign of teaching's nature, we tend to try to define that mystery out of existence. Rather than trying to understand what is truly indefinable about teaching, we concern ourselves exclusively with the concrete instruments of teaching, like knowledge and skills, that can be measured by tests or other kinds of evaluations. Those concrete constituents of teaching are what are taught in schools of education. As a result, those who carry on the back-breaking work of instruction as well as those who prepare teachers for it rarely, if ever, concern themselves with the personal qualities and dispositions, the aspects of self, that, willy-nilly, all teachers bring to their endeavor. Put more specifically, consideration of these qualities and dispositions--consideration of the human qualities of the people who teach--is the missing dimension of teacher training, in-service programs, and conversations among teachers themselves. Knowledge of subject and knowledge of technique are taken to be the only prerequisites to becoming a teacher. Knowledge of self is considered irrelevant.

Self-knowledge is the missing dimension of our preparation and growth as teachers in part because acknowledging its importance would require acknowledging another fact that is at the root of the mystery of teaching--that teaching is an art, not a science.

Like any art, of course, we can isolate its components. For painting, for instance, we can specify ground, medium, color, form, and tools--those elements that seem to make up a finished canvas. Yet it is painters' unique selves, not their paintbrushes or the kinds of paint they use, that animate those components of their craft and make those components into what has never before been seen--works of art. Similarly, just as the various components of a work of art do not make art, neither do intellectual content and instructional method alone make teaching. Original acts of teaching, like those of art, cannot be replicated. They are unique.

How can we teach our students to understand and lead life in all its fullness if we are guilty of neglecting our own human characteristics?

Yet by contrast with those who study painting, teachers are not led during their professional preparation to isolate and examine the analogous, constituent, human elements of teaching. They are not led to consider that they, as people, are the keys to the success of their instruction. It is as if painters-in-training were never asked to become conscious of the chemical qualities of the paints they use, the spatial perspectives they employ, and the points of view they impose on their subjects. It is thus left to teaching to be arguably the last frontier of the unexamined professional self.

The qualities that make for effective teaching are inherent in all of us. They must be summoned from within ourselves; while they can be developed, they are not and cannot be imposed. What teachers do cannot be distinguished from who they are. It is their human qualities that create their teaching. It is the components of their very selves that give their knowledge and technique both meaning and effectiveness. And it is these qualities that form the innumerable daily spontaneous acts that constitute their instruction.

The qualities of self that are woven into every act of instruction are perhaps numberless; surely they are many. What they are can no doubt be debated. Surely, however, the principal ones are learning, authority, ethics, order, imagination, compassion, patience, character, and pleasure. To them one might add such others as enthusiasm and industry (although those are embodied in the others). They all overlap--imagination, for instance, being a large ingredient of compassion--and some can exist in an effective teacher without others. All compose the identity of each teacher, and a book could be written about each. What we insist on here is that, just like the components of knowledge and technique, the components of self that make up all teaching can be--and ought to be--identified, specified, discussed, and analyzed.

How that might come about is another matter. We think it unlikely that schools of education will take up the work of doing so or that in-service programs, those scandals of American schooling, will do so either. We would rather put our hopes in individual teachers, who might begin by thinking concretely and honestly about their own personal qualities and dispositions and then initiate some conversations with their colleagues about the "who" of teaching. That way, they are likely to arrive at a deeper understanding of the great and exacting gifts of self the best of them make to their students every day. After all, how can we teach our students to understand and lead life in all its fullness--the guiding aim of education--if we are guilty of neglecting our own human characteristics as we pursue our calling?

James M. Banner Jr. and Harold C. Cannon have taught schoolchildren, high school students, collegians, doctoral candidates, military personnel, and school teachers, among others. They are the authors of The Elements of Teaching, published this week by Yale University Press.

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