Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Searching for Great Teachers

By Patrick F. Bassett — February 26, 2003 6 min read
The film ‘The Emperor's Club’ urges us to examine what's important in teaching.

Every so often, a film comes along that reminds those of us who work in education why we do what we do. Such was the case with “The Emperor’s Club,” and, in particular, with Kevin Kline’s avuncular character, William Hundert. The film urges us to examine what is important in education, and spawns debate about high-quality teaching that extends beyond the walls of academia into the public sector.

“The Emperor’s Club” couldn’t have come at a better time, as America simultaneously seeks to attract a huge number of new recruits to replace a generation of teachers who are about to retire, and to redress the failures of the educational system at large, so that, in fact as in rhetoric, “no child is left behind.” It is imperative that we, as a nation, develop strategies for dealing with these pressing issues. But, first, we must ask, “What makes a good teacher good?”

Some people define good teachers as those who are certified. A “highly qualified teacher in every classroom” is their mantra. But are certified teachers actually better?

Proponents of another school of thought argue that great teaching has very little, if anything, to do with certification or methodology courses, but rather with knowledge in one or more content areas, passion about one’s subject, and love for kids. “High quality” (vs. “highly qualified”) teachers are what this group proposes. High quality means (at least at the middle school and secondary school levels) teachers who have a degree in the discipline they teach (mathematics, science, history, foreign language, literature, the arts, and the like), preferably from a liberal arts college with competitive admissions criteria. These teachers also have life experiences that enrich the teaching itself. The idea here is that one needs to know something deeply to teach it well, and to care about it to teach it passionately. It’s easier to help new teachers learn how to teach well—using strong mentoring systems—than to teach them what to teach.

Schools with high-achieving students tend to be those where the teachers have a deep knowledge base about the subjects they are teaching, where they were themselves high-performing students.

The research supports this latter school of thought, and shows the positive impact high-quality teachers have on student learning. According to Thinking K-16, a publication of the Washington-based research and advocacy group the Education Trust, “Neither education courses completed, advanced education degrees, scores on professional-knowledge sections of licensure exams, nor, interestingly, years of experience seem to have a clear relationship to student achievement.” Similarly, a research report produced by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation explores the relationship between teacher preparation and student achievement and concludes that “teacher certification is neither an efficient nor an effective means by which to ensure a competent teaching force. Worse, it is often counterproductive.”

So what does determine teacher quality? Using a meta-analysis of the available research, the Abell Foundation determined that verbal ability and the selectivity of the college the teacher attended are the key factors in teacher quality. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2002 report “Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge: The Secretary’s Annual Report on Teacher Quality” concurs: “Studies have consistently documented the important connection between a teacher’s verbal and cognitive abilities and student achievement,” it says, adding that “subject-matter background can also have a positive effect on student performance.” Thus, schools with high-achieving students tend to be those where the teachers have a deep knowledge base about the subjects they are teaching, where the teachers were themselves high-performing students in school and college, where the teachers are impassioned about their subjects, and where the teachers care about the kids they teach.

It’s nice to have this research, but it’s usually the story that makes the case in people’s minds much more persuasively than the theory (especially when the story’s effect is cinematically multiplied by memorable drama and vivid imagery). What does good teaching look like? Let us go back to “The Emperor’s Club.”

The film takes place in 1976 at an all-boys college-prep school, the fictional St. Benedict’s School for Boys, where William Hundert teaches ancient history. Since the milieu is purposely dated (and framed at the end of the film by a more contemporary look at a “St. Benedict’s” that more closely resembles boarding schools today), critics may discount the applicability of the themes. Such criticism, however, is ill-conceived, since the central theme is timeless and universal: A good teacher can have a huge impact on the lives of his or her students.

For Mr. Hundert, history tells a story with powerful lessons about where we came from and who we are. As he intones to his class, “Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be?” Even the motto over Mr. Hundert’s door invokes this theme: The powerful tyrants of history are largely forgotten, victims of the rubble and ruin they created.

Mr. Hundert is a great teacher, the kind just about every moviegoer of any age wishes he or she had had (or, for the lucky ones among us, the kind we did have, at least once). Mr. Hundert and memorable movie characters like him (Mr. Keating in “Dead Poets Society,” for instance) present to us teachers who are complex, complicated (some would say “rounded” in a literary sense), and flawed, like the rest of us. These are not the one- dimensional, satirized characters typically found in films about school (for example, the teenage set’s 1985 film “The Breakfast Club” or the 1998 slasher/sci-fi film “The Faculty”). At the end of the day, it is who you are, not necessarily what you teach, that counts the most. This is the lesson of the great teachers like Mr. Hundert, the lesson he models and teaches.

In my own case, it was Mr. Warren, my U.S. history teacher in the 11th grade, who changed the course of my life. When given the choice in high school, I typically sat in the back of the room and tried to avoid contact with any and all of my teachers. My very first class with Mr. Warren, however, changed that script. He walked to the back of the classroom and began engaging me, mano a mano, in a way that indicated he was interested in my ideas, and more importantly, in me.

That class began what developed into a real relationship, and Mr. Warren became a kind of mentor for me. His guidance extended far beyond the classroom. Mr. Warren helped convince my father, for example, that pursuing a liberal arts education would not be permanently disabling to my future prospects.

As a teacher, inspiration and perspiration ruled my days. As I look back on that time, I'm reminded what an incredible responsibility and opportunity teaching is.

Although I’d like to say that Mr. Warren’s example inspired me early in my teaching career, it is only in retrospect that I see his influence. As a teacher, inspiration and perspiration ruled my days. I was forever trying to stay one step ahead of my students, fearful that I was secretly an impostor, merely posing as a teacher. As I look back on that time, I’m reminded what an incredible responsibility and opportunity teaching is. Witnessing students soak up knowledge is rewarding enough, but to hear from them, 20 years later, and learn that you have had an impact on their lives, that you helped shape who they would become, is a professional satisfaction beyond measure.

It is this satisfaction, as well as the importance of teaching itself, that we must convey to prospective teachers if we are to avoid a devastating teacher shortage.

We must, also, treat teachers as the skilled professionals that they are, and pay them accordingly. We must make those who are exceptional teachers mentors to less experienced and less effective teachers, so that students across the country can benefit from truly inspiring instruction.

Extraordinary teaching goes far beyond the phonemes and phonics, the bisections of angles or dissections of frogs, that compose the daily routines of school. For “high quality” teachers, we should seek nothing less than those who play Socrates to Plato, Plato to Aristotle, Aristotle to Alexander the Great: that line of thoughtful tutors for whom the Mr. Hunderts of our imagination are logical extensions, those who believe that lessons are exercises designed to develop both mind and soul.

Patrick F. Bassett, a former teacher and headmaster, is the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, in Washington.

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