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The 'Good' Teacher: Tapping the Mysterious

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Perhaps we need to look at the 'root causes' of effective teaching.

The Commentary by James M. Banner Jr. and Harold C. Cannon ("The 'Who' of Teaching," April 16, 1997,) tweaked a curiosity and an interest I have had throughout my career of trying to understand what makes a good teacher. The essay scraped some moss off a subject that desperately needs more consideration.

Several years ago, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction launched the Special Educational Needs Program, or SEN. Its basic thrust was to identify and address the "root causes" of low achievement. Whether the department officials who planned SEN ever fully realized it or not, their charge to school districts was a very tall order. They were dealing with the multitude of ticking elements that make up the human mind and being.

A small group of us in the Milwaukee public schools accepted the challenge in a think-tank setting that lasted for two weeks without interruption. The result, I believe to this day, was a remarkable proposal that was never funded--perhaps because it was perceived as not fitting the time-honored and safe educational criteria of being doable, manageable, and measurable.

The reason I bring this up is that it involves the same human elements that Messrs. Banner and Cannon are seeking to define in the ''who'' of teaching. After all, teachers are really grown-up students who have accepted what is probably the most critical and future-defining challenge that exists.

We can discuss content and method as they relate to successful teaching, but these are tangibles that have been discussed, debated, studied, and taught by teacher training institutions since their inception. A question not raised in the Commentary is why noneducators very often have proven to be effective teachers without ever having taken an education course. The secret of "who" may be found there. These individuals undoubtedly are experts on content in their respective fields, since that is the reason they were sought out in the first place. The second element of successful teaching, method, probably is spontaneous for them. The third, and most mysterious, quality they seem to possess--the ''who''--is inherent in all good teachers, regardless of background or professional training.

The debate about teaching as an art or a science or both is raised by Messrs. Banner and Cannon, but the defining qualities of that debate fall way short of understanding the essence of effective teaching. What makes good teaching so mysterious and difficult to define is its being the humanistic and indefinable endeavor that it is. Perhaps we need to look at the "root causes" of effective teaching. While it may be that the elements of an effective teacher are inherent in us all, as suggested by Messrs. Banner and Cannon, we all may not be capable of harnessing the qualities necessary to achieve that status; at least not to the same degree. Identifying approaches, both in teacher training institutions and on the job, that can help teachers acquire the mysterious qualities of good teaching would, however, be a giant step forward.

Personally, I would rather have a shortage of good teachers than a surplus of poorly equipped ones.

Let's try to imagine a typical classroom in many schools today. The teacher has in his or her room a group of perhaps 20 or more students whose interests in being there range from intense to none. Each is a mysterious human being with his or her own set of internal pluses and minuses. Given this nearly impossible setting, the teacher also must be constantly aware of the A-word (accountability). Somehow, this collection of unique individuals, often with vastly different backgrounds and experiences, must leave school with all the knowledge, social skills, and emotional qualities expected by mainstream society. That's challenging enough to make even the most effective and dedicated teacher shrink from the task.

So who are the effective or "good" teachers? Quality teachers seem to be those who are able to attend to and manipulate individualism within an acutely diverse and somewhat unmanageably large group of students. They have full control of their own psycho-emotional well-being; do not exhibit panic or anxiety; and rarely display or feign anger except when well-placed and justified. These teachers conduct themselves with a calmness that is both effective and contagious. That is, they possess an internal feeling of serenity and security that allows them, without conscious effort, to sense and communicate to each student that he or she is a unique individual who is supremely important to them (the teachers).

Perhaps this works because these teachers truly believe it. They have a natural love for their task and for each of their charges and, without a whole lot of conscious or outward expression, this is sensed by their students so dramatically that they, too, without conscious effort, respect and trust these teachers and want to learn from them.

Who were your great teachers and why did you think they were great? Probably because they were disciplined, they had great expectations that you sensed were real and meaningful; they cared about you; you knew they were there to help you--not only with academics but with personal concerns. All of this was intensely genuine; and you, again without conscious effort or awareness, respected them for it and wanted them to be pleased, if not downright proud of you.

Now for the serious question: If these qualities don't come naturally, how do we instill them in new teachers? Will teacher training institutions accept the challenge? And can they do it by offering courses on humanism, commitment, inspiration, social qualities, expectations, or whatever they would choose to call them? Can they test for these qualities? Should individuals who do not pass the test be discouraged from entering the profession? Can the in-service process be useful in helping struggling teachers achieve the "good teacher" status?

Perhaps the answer to all of the above should be yes. Personally, I would rather have a shortage of good teachers than a surplus of poorly equipped teachers. Better yet, I would rather have all teachers fit the "good" category. It's a Herculean task and a particular challenge to teacher training institutions, but wouldn't it be great for education?


Jack I. Marcussen is a business and educational consultant in Sparta, Tenn.

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