What Makes a Good Teacher?

There has been much going on in my neck of the woods with regards to education recently. Teachers strikes, contract negotiations, optimum class sizes, budget cuts. It is all becoming a little cumbersome. We are parents in a somewhat unique situation, in that we have grown (well, almost grown) children and one still in elementary school. So we have a broad base of comparison. Youth is a whole other entity and we should have a prayer list a mile long for these blessed creatures. Then a double prayer list for their mommas and dads. Oh no, parenting is not for the weak. Or the squeamish. Especially if you have been blessed with boys, or an over dramatic girl. Or a partner who cannot handle barf. But, I digress. I’ve been working on a baby gift that I have to send off to some new parents soon, and pondered about how differently their little one will grow up — even compared to my youngest. The world changes so rapidly and we must do our best to keep up.

I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of one particular type of education. It’s not my place… although I would love to sit down with you and discuss home schooling vs. private school vs. public school vs… well, let’s just say I would love to sit with you. I have my own views and opinions that may differ from yours. Which is okay because I am not raising your kid. For the record, I am not an educational expert, either. I’ve seen a few systems, though. And most, if not all, of them are broken. There is not a “perfect” way to raise a child — because there are no perfect parents, and no perfect children. Oh, and here is a big revelation… there are no perfect teachers, either. Or class sizes, or budgets, or salary caps, or… you get the picture.

Which is why I always say that you must be involved in your student’s education. It is vital you know what goes on in the classroom and in the system. And in the heart of your student. But let’s back up a bit and think about that: “education”. What does it mean? The short answer is this: Education is the process of facilitating learning, or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits. (Wikipedia — which may not be your choice for “educational” definitions, but serves my purposes here, so let’s all move on, shall we?) The acquisition of knowledge. You can get that from sticking your finger in a light socket. No system necessary there. But “facilitating learning”? Much deeper thoughts. How does one do this for such a diverse generation? Can we do it for our own kids? For ourselves?

What about those values and beliefs? Who is responsible for those? The high priest? Pastor? Youth specialist? YouTube? We were teasing our church’s youth pastor, recently, that because he wasn’t a skilled ice skater and didn’t know how to play the guitar, that somehow he didn’t have all the necessary “qualifications” of youth leader. (It’s not true, of course!) but what should our teachers possess in order to make them “good” and “qualified” teachers? Four years of seminary? Greek study? Summer mission experience? Married? Single? Oh, we fiercely debate such things. And so I muse: What does make a good teacher?

I think it is someone who cares about the student. Dare I say loves the student so deeply that they want to see them succeed in that “acquisition of knowledge”… so that it changes their lives forever. Someone who can foster a lifelong love of learning. My favourite teachers were the ones who inspired me. Frankly, I hardly remember a thing they taught. I remember the comments or the encouragement, or the way they made concepts come alive or applicable to me and my measly existence in the universe. People who may have thought differently than I, and challenged my way. In turn, solidifying my core values and/or correcting my habits. So, you see, it is all of us. Formal education is only one part of the puzzle. It’s people who challenge the norms, it’s intergenerational mentorship, it’s cross cultural experiences, it’s formal learning in traditional sessions and it’s being creative and using the gifts God gives us. I don’t care if you have your own kids or not, when you come in contact with mine, you are teaching them. Whether you like it or not.

And we fail. Often. But failure, too, is part of learning. Overcoming the failure and the ability to move forward shapes the next mistake, and the mistake after that. So, be encouraged, my friend, that there is only one perfect teacher who walked the Earth. Yet Jesus also grew in “…wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man…” (Luke 2). He was taught, and was the Teacher. His goals were clear, but loved the students so much that no one was denied the learning experience. Learned men, women, children and outcasts and sinners sat at His feet and were taught with patience and love. Sure, we have our preferences. We have our strategies and pedagogies and they too, ebb and flow as our society changes and the next generation leads the way for a new one. But we should never stop learning. And teaching.

Emily

I met a little girl named Emily today.  I really can’t tell you much about her, except that she wore a purple, fleece, zip up hoodie with unicorns on it, and was in the grade one/two split class I visited this morning.  I don’t know her last name, I don’t know who her parents are or where she lives.  I don’t know anything about her home life or what her reading level is.  In fact, I don’t even remember her answering questions on the carpet or visiting my center.  She wasn’t one of those keen to learn students with her hand up in the front row, who smiled pretty when she answered the right questions.  She wasn’t even one of those kids in the back row who wasn’t paying attention either.  She didn’t poke or giggle with her friends like a typical grade one elementary schooler.  She seemed to be “just Emily.”

Come to think of it, this little invisible girl only appeared on my radar after the class was over and I was busily packing up my equipment to head home.  The rest of the class was tired and hungry and eager to get on to the lunchroom.  They had obviously had a delightfully engaging morning — full of hands on science and learning, taught expertly by yours truly.  (Ahem! 🙂 ) They had even given up their class snack time to learn!  Emily, however, seemed to doddle about busily nibbling on a cucumber slice that her teacher had given her earlier from the class lunch bin.  Her mousy, long brown hair was disheveled slightly and wisps of it got in the way of her field of vision,  the way it does for a grade one girl who seems to be forging her own way in life.

microscope

She casually sauntered up to me, brushed aside her hair and inquired about my bins.  Where did all the things come from?  Where was I going now?  Did I live at the science centre?  I politely answered her curious questions and began to shoo her off to lunch with her friends.  Emily had other plans, though.   She picked up one of my microscopes and proceeded  to “help” clean up.  (ack! …slight panic… heavy, expensive equipment slung about by a seven-year-old is a disaster waiting to happen!  It’s one of those things they tell you about in classroom management courses!)  “Oh, no, no, my friend… thank you for your help… but off you go to lunch now…” As I gently removed the microscope from Emily’s grip, I hear an assistant say that Emily is not listening — again.

Suddenly, I feel the need to rethink my purposes.  It’s probably true.  Emily probably doesn’t listen much to instructions.  She probably doesn’t follow the rules easily.  Maybe she doesn’t sit and do all her homework and hang her coat on the hook.  She probably forgets to her to change her indoor shoes and tie back her untamed locks.  But at this very moment, Emily wants to help.  And so I let her.  I ask her to collect all my pencils and stack the pencil bins so they fit together.  I ask her to pile the books so I can pack them away.  We spend the next minute or so tidying up together.

I don’t remember the moment Emily decided to go off to lunch.  Suddenly she was invisible again… a purple unicorn hoodie blur in the mass of grade ones and twos filing out the door.  Dumbfounded for a moment, I was struck by the realization that we so often meet Emilys.  People seemingly invisible — but there.  The cashier at the grocery store.  The elderly man on the bus.  The teenager plugged in to headphones at the back of the class.  Do we take the time to simply engage them when the spark of opportunity arrives?  A smile as they open the door for us?  A thank you when they hand us our bags?Emily

Each of us are fearfully and wonderfully made.  A unique image crafted with personalities so complex and diverse.  None of us are the same.  And yet, we function somehow as a whole. We strive, like Emily, to do a little good now and then.  Even when it is hard to follow the rules.  My little moment with Emily taught me, that maybe, just maybe, the key to engagement is not always in grand productions full of magic and wonder.  It’s often not in the polished presentation with flash cards and perfectly laminated worksheets.  Perhaps it is simply taking the time to answer a few curious questions, and the chance to be polite to those invisible strangers as they reach out and stack a few pencil bins for us.