The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Teachers open the door.  You enter by yourself."... ...Chinese proverb.

Commentary of the Day - September 27, 2003:  How to Tell the Good Teacher From the Bad.  Guest commentary by Nils Clausson.

I recently taught a second-year summer class called "Introduction to the Study of Literary Genres."  On the wall of our classroom, which was in the Faculty of Education building, was a poster-size sheet of construction paper on which education students had listed, first, "Characteristics: Good Teachers" and then, under that list, "Bad Teachers."  I have been teaching since 1968, so naturally I was curious to find out how I stacked up. I suppose I should not have been shocked.  But I was.  Now that the new school year is just getting under way, it might be timely to reveal what students in one Faculty of Education consider the hallmarks of a good teacher. The list, in both form and content, speaks volumes about the fate of education in contemporary society.  Here it is:

Characteristics: Good Teachers

  Personalized to student needs
  Makes it comfortable, fun, etc.
  Caring, kind, supportive, positive, funny
  Passionate about teaching
  Fair, equal

Bad Teachers

  Picks favorites
  Not well prepared
  Don't care what ["there" was crossed out] they are teaching
  Not creative

 Well, perhaps we should be thankful that this lot of future teachers at least knows the difference between "there" and "they are," though I'm not optimistic that they can spell "they're," which accounts for the unabbreviated form.  And these students also appear a bit shaky when it comes to subject-verb agreement.  Nevertheless, I concur that good teachers -- even competent ones, I would add -- should be clear and organized, which is more than I can say for this unparallel, ungrammatical and unclear mélange of pedagogical flummery.

How, I found myself asking as I jotted down the list after the first class, can a teacher be "personalized toward student needs"?  (How can anyone be "personalized to" anything?)  What is the antecedent of "it" in the third characteristic?  Teachers are supposed to be "funny" and make "it" (learning? school? the subject they're teaching?) fun.  I wonder if they are required to take a methods class on "Humor as a Learning Enhancement Tool"?  I understand that teachers should be fair, but how can they be equal?  Equal to what?  And just what are good teachers  "involved" in?

Perhaps I am being unkind.  After all, this list did not appear in an education textbook or as a handout from the instructor.  But that fact makes the list no less troubling, for it sadly exposes what education students spontaneously came up with when asked to identify the characteristics of good and bad teachers.

What is truly disturbing is what is not on the list -- what these students did not think important enough to mention.  There are all the warm, fuzzy, feel-good qualities (I'm a bit surprised that "good listener" and "can relate to students" didn't make it), but do you not agree that it is a revealing comment on contemporary education that no one thought that a good teacher should be knowledgeable about the subject he or she is teaching?  If, for example, one just happens to be teaching Canadian history, would it not be desirable (I would even say imperative) to know more than one might pick up from playing the Canadian version of Trivial Pursuit?  Or if one plans to teach chemistry, might it not be a good idea to take a few chemistry classes at university?

These education students feel that teachers should be "passionate about teaching."  Nothing is wrong with that. But what about being passionate about math, or Canadian history, or English literature?  (I concede that it would be too much to expect a teacher, much less an education student, to be passionate about the English language or about grammar. Such passion would, of course, bore the students.)  Teachers, it seems, are expected to be funny, caring, kind, respectful, positive, supportive, and (number one on the list) sociable, like the Wal-Mart greeter. But they are not expected to know anything.  (Except, of course, how to teach the subjects they know nothing about.) These students do not want to teach history or English or geography. They want to teach students; and, they want to do it creatively and passionately.

Over three decades of teaching has taught me that it's impossible to teach students. I can only teach English literature to students.  And to do that I need to know a lot more about English literature than I ever plan to teach.

©2003 Nils Clausson.
Dr. Clausson teaches in the Department of English at the University of Regina in Canada.

The IP comments: Those of us who have followed the decline in the quality of teaching in the United States perhaps had thought that the trend was unique to this country.  From Dr. Clausson's comments it appears that standards have eroded in other parts of the English-speaking world.  That's not a comforting thought!

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