Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Good Teacher

Last week, before class, a student of mine asked me what I thought made a good teacher. I didn't have a lot of time to explain, and he didn't seem to be asking me because he thought I wasn't a good teacher, so I rambled off some half-baked thoughts on teachers having individual expectations, goals and philosophies, but the question stayed with me well after the class ended.

I've been teaching for four full years now and have been evaluated by faculty members, at least, four times. Each time, my evaluations have come back with sparkling reviews, much to my satisfaction. But the reviews always read as though the evaluator is a little surprised, as if they didn't expect the kind of teaching-style I have. Sometimes my students seem surprised, as well.

My best teachers were the ones who challenged me individually. The ones who recognized that each student had a different skill level of ability and who taught to that individual, to that level. "You always want to teach to the smartest kid in the class," I've heard, and I think there's something to that, but there's also something inherently significant about teaching to every student, challenging them and making them think about the more difficult questions and issues in a way that allows them to connect to it and make the information not just relevant, but resonant.

Every time I go into a classroom, I have a set of notes that I want to address to the class. These notes touch on aspects of what was required of them in preparation for the class, but they go a few steps further and ask questions that get the students involved. Student involvement in my classroom is essential. I attempt to provide them with the tools they need (background info, definitions...etc.) in order for them to answer the questions thoughtfully. My lectures begin with the information, often I ask someone to talk a little about what the piece we read for class was about and as they summarize, I either add in moments that are important to what we've read or I ask other students to chime in if they think a detail or piece of the story is relevant, but unmentioned by the summarizer. Once we're done summarizing, I pose questions, point out analyses and points I'm not sure they would have recognized on a first read (and most students do not read a text more than one time before class) and guide them toward interpreting and analyzing the points in the piece. I encourage them to give their opinions, even though there's always one who totally misses the boat, but is incredibly devoted to his/her opinion on it--as uninformed and illogical as it might be--and encourage them to engage one another, respond to different opinions and use examples from the text.

In short, I don't overteach to them. I don't tell them what I think they should believe about the text, I just help them get there on their own and, when they stumble, I offer some guidance. Inevitably, the class becomes a lot about discussion, using the texts to support their opinions and relating relevant personal tales or examples from society to the text in order to gage a fuller understanding. In short, my classes teach and, ultimately, learn from themselves and I, as their teacher, act as a guide. My goal as a teacher is to help teach them how to fish instead of slapping that slippery, hooked sucker down before them while saying, "Here is the fish and this is what you should think and know about how we got to this fish."

It seems to be working so far. A good teacher, in my mind, is one who sharpens thinking skills, provides students with the ability to figure things out for themselves, encourages them to look closer if they only see the surface and to push their thinking beyond what seems obvious to the more complex thoughts and themes that lie beneath the surface. Some students get this early on and excel, often pushing the envelope even farther because they've perfected the pattern of thinking until there's nothing left to think about, but only a greater truth that feels present. Until there's really no other way they can see the text but as a representation of women's lib or historical documentation...etc. I push them to keep thinking until they've concluded something that is completely plausible, but, perhaps not always, the only possibility. My goal is to not only make them think well, but to accept that there are other possible answers to some situations and many ways of reaching those answers. My favorite is when a student says, "This might be really stretching it or reaching for straws, but..." and then they go on to say precisely what it is they were supposed to get out of the text. Their disclaimer is really a demonstration of them having leapt past some of the steps it took to get to the overall understanding while still reaching it. Eventually, they go back and take the time to go through all the steps to get there.

I'm not above relaying to my students a personal anecdote that can contribute to their understanding of a text. At times, when they look most confused, I launch into a tale about my own family or life, an opening that will allow them to understand the point of the text, then I liken that moral or purpose to the actual text. The conclusion and lesson is usually evident in my personal story, which allows them to see the point of the text more clearly. Sometimes it's about connecting the dots in a text, recognizing that all the words are there for a good reason, but they aren't all working toward the same goal all the time. Some points are aimed toward women's lib while others are geared toward justifying one's own life choices (in the text) and in even more cases, those points of reference overlap and do double the work.

Usually students take some time to get that they're expected to talk a lot in my classes, to understand that I'm not just going to give them the right answers, but expect them to figure stuff out on their own or with some help. We are four weeks or so into the semester and my students are growing more confident, asking more questions of the text (questions that are sometimes posed to the class or questions of clarity that only I, most likely, will know the answers to, given my close analysis, research and preparation before the lecture). They are starting to engage with one another, push one another's opinions and conclusions on the work and even choose patterns of logic from the pool amongst their peers that appeals and makes more sense to them than others. This is where it gets fun.

I'm not sure if I'm a good teacher or whether, at the end of the semester, my students feel like they know so much more than they did. But I think my goals in a classroom might be different than that. Sure I want them to remember the texts and the authors and the work we've read. Sure I want them to understand what issues from the texts are significant or why we keep reading the same texts over and understand that there are layers of reading and analysis...etc. The thing is, I don't want to give them everything, especially not mine or other scholars' conclusions about texts. I want to teach them how to wear down a path of logic to get to those conclusions themselves. I want to teach them to think.

I hope I'm a good teacher. I'm trying to emulate what I think a good teacher should be and do, but I guess I'll never really know. I do all the other things: the grading, the office hours, the emails and looking at continuous drafts. I make myself as available, helpful and understanding as I can without compromising my syllabus or expectations, like all my best, most memorable teachers did for me (Mr. Lyons, Mrs. Hickey, Dr. McGuiness, Dr. Leonard...) In the end, I think the best teachers are the ones that teach students how to fish...and that's the kind of teacher I try to be.

I just hope it works.

What traits and teaching styles did your best teachers have?


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