Does effective = good? And the tale of a great teacher.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about what makes a good teacher. I’ve surfed the net for hours to find out what other people say about this.

Does effective = excellent? Not necessarily. I think that all excellent teachers are effective, but not all effective teachers are excellent.

Thinking back about my favorite, most inspiring, teachers, I have found that they are the ones who not only have classroom management skills, know the subject area, and can explain well, but those who have an enthusiasm for the subject and an enthusiasm for their students.

For example, I wrote a research paper for my ninth grade history teacher. I spent a lot of time on it. I did my best. It was much more work than was required for the assignment and really was several research papers in one binder. There were some problems with it. But I had worked hard on it.

Mr. Klinger gave me an A+ and included an op-ed piece from the NYTimes with my research paper when he returned it. This op-ed was written by a man whose wife was a teacher. She read him a paper because she thought it was so far above the other papers she had received over her years of teaching. But she was giving the student an A- because it wasn’t perfect. “Isn’t this the best paper you have ever received?” her husband asked. “Yes,” she answered. “Then why not give it an A+?” “Because it is not perfect.” The writer said that he thought the best paper she had ever received deserved an A+ even if it wasn’t perfect. And so, in one simple reading, Mr. Klinger made clear that my paper wasn’t perfect, but it was one of the best he had ever received.

I still have the paper and the op-ed piece. It has encouraged me many times over the years.

Mr. Klinger was an excellent teacher.

Joe responded:

Very good description of effective versus excellent. Of course, I agree with the statement “all effective teachers may not be excellent but all excellent teacher are effective.” You can be effective and teach intolerant, dishonesty, misinformation, etc.

When I wrote my essay I took “teacher” in an academic setting, but some of my most “excellent” teachers were not accredited as such (especially opening the mind after basic academic training): two examples: 1) One day, twenty-five years ago, I got a call from B. Rapaport in Waco: “You are the Joe Kagle who wrote the Sunday Op-Ed page today. I liked it. We must talk. Call my secretary and we will have lunch.” For that moment on, B and I had lunch once a month. He learned about the creative process from me and I learned about business, politics and being Jewish in America from him. He was an excellent teacher. 2) My roommate in college also came from Pittsburgh. I did not know him before then (although we went to the same high school and was in one math class together). Harry was one of those guys who could read a book and remember pages word for word. He became a lawyer. I have a visual memory, walking through a gallery and can tell you strokes on a painting, years later. I became an artist, teacher and museum director. After college, we stayed in contact, no matter where in the world we were. Many times our conversations started with “Who is the third best writer in the world that few have heard about?” or “Who is the third best American artist in the 20th century?” It was never our answers but the conversations on the process of answering that livened the talks in motion. In both instances, (with B and Harry) we were excellent teachers for each other becaise we came to the table of friendship with gifts to share.

And I, of course, came back with an equally developed post:

Absolutely not all good teachers are academic. I learn best from stories (or “case studies”) and I enjoyed reading about your two friends. I have to admit that I don’t know three American 20th century artists, though I know several excellent 20th century artists. I’m intrigued by that question.

As an English teacher, I think I ought to have an answer to “who is the third best writer that few people know about,” but I am going to have to think about that one.

For my literature courses, one of the questions I think about is “What texts are often referred to among educated people that the students haven’t read?” That question brought Frankenstein, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Gulliver’s Travels into several of my syllabi. I collect popular culture or news references to literary works and file them so that I can discuss relevance with my students.

The ability to ask thoughtful questions is part of what makes life interesting.

I have found that sometimes my students can be the ones who are asking those questions. My first year teaching developmental writing, I learned more about the whys of grammar than I had ever even thought of before. This last semester I had a group of highly inquisitive and motivated students. They also kept me learning.

I wonder if I could do more to elicit those kinds of questions from my students… Hmm. Maybe in Brit Lit I could ask them what they would have wanted to learn about a section that I didn’t cover. Since it is a required course I am not sure that asking them what they want to know would elicit any useful information. I’ll have to think about that.

Joe answered:

One thing that I have used (because it worked for me) is: If you change the venue you sometimes may create the inherent questions that follow. Let me give you an example: I was in charge of an art festival at Washington and Jefferson College in PA and I asked Kimon Frair to attend and give a lecture on The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis. He came, was marvelous, started some questions in my mind, we ate and drank together, and he left and returned to Greece. Shortly after that I was asked to teach on World Campus Afloat and we anchored in Athens harbor. Kimon took my wife and I around to all the sites, danced and drank with us in the tavernas, and told stories of Greek myths and modern adventures by Kazantzakis and others. It was life changing. It opened questions for me that I am still pondering. When I returned to the States, I asked myself: “Why can’t we change the venue for students in their own background? We are all foreigners in our own neighborhood.” So I asked the students to read Coleridge’s Kubla Khan for romanticism, view the works of artists after the French revolution, visit the Buddhist church in Houston, visit a neighborhood that they had never visited around here, and then write an essay about Romanticism (“about feeling” that they found in one work of art).” Of course, some took the exercise to heart and some just went through the motions (having wonderful excuses for not extending their reach).

In the same class last year I brought in a Buddhist monk (a friend from Japan who was originally from Germany) to talk to my class about dedication and how one got into the monestary to study Buddhist. It was, again, for some, a life changing experience and for at least 2/3 just “something else” they had to endure to get credits. We teach for the many but we really only reach a few deeply. Still, changing the venue from the genre to the “new” does help some (in part all) to relate and ask questions.

This is a rumination from my adjunct certification course.