Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Mon, 7 Nov 1994

Well, this is the third part of the assignment my students have given me. Blast them. They are pushing me to think as hard or maybe even harder than most of my colleagues. I think these three assignments rival, maybe surpass, my doctoral orals. I passed the assignment about what an education boils down to. They gave me an "A." I also got an "A" on the part about what teaching boils down to. I thought I was finished with their course. But, they weren't finished. They were still not satisfied. Then, they asked me to describe "the good teacher." I looked at them.

"This is your final exam," one of them asserted. "It's worth forty per cent of your grade. Each exam was worth 20 percent. Attitude and effort is worth 20 percent."

I looked at them.

"Why not ask me to define 'love' or 'beauty,'" I replied in an exasperated tone.

"It's due in two weeks," was the answer as they ignored my statement.

"Can I have more than two sentences?" I begged.

"Yes," was their compassionate reply. And then added as smirks began to appear on their faces, "But, don't make it too long. After all we have to read and grade it."

I've been struggling with this assignment for almost two weeks. It has almost become consuming. I've even started to dream dreams about "the good teacher." I think my problem is to weave together what I see as the two distinct, inseparable, and interrelated aspects of defining a good teacher. There is the artistic aspect of the good teacher who enters the classroom as naturally gifted as a Mozart. This "born" talent is creative and subjective. It cannot be taught or learned. It's almost impossible to measure and defies definition. It can't be graphed out on a chart, inventoried, piled up and counted, or in any way quantified. It's a "born" feel for the flow of the class, a native ability to recognize issues before they appear, a special rapport with students, a innate talent for knowing when to encourage or to challenge or to speak or to remain silent a bit longer or to accept.

There is also the scientific aspect of being a good teacher, of having both the conceptual and concrete tools as an artist has brushes, paints, and canvas; of learning all the nuances of their tools. I don't know of any great artist who has come to their art unstudied and untrained and unpracticed. Leonardo da Vinci studied human corpses. Rembrandt drew sketches. Rubenstein played scale drills. Callas rehearsed arias. Astaire practiced his choreography. Benny Goodman took lessons. Good teachers, however innate their ability, do not come to their craft untrained any more than a great ballet dancer comes on stage without knowing how to perform safely a particular step with both precision and beauty. Good teachers, artists that they are, sweat as they study the basics of their art and convert their raw ability into talent. The good teacher learns that at his or her finger tips there are so many possibilities of what can be done in the class other than lecture and information presentation. They learn about the processes of learning, about varied ways to introduce concepts, to involve students in their learning, to assess student progress, to utilize advances in technology, to be sensitive to the changing academic student population, to assess themselves and their performance. They study to know all the nuances of their tools no less than the great artists have learned the options offered by their tools; how different brushes making different brush strokes using different mediums on different materials create different effects.

Well, with all that said and done, I've finally been able to put something down on paper and submit it to my "student professors." Here's my essay on my kind of a "good teacher:"

In some non-descript, intuitive, immeasurable, non- quantitative, inexplicable way I have begun to sense who the good teacher is and who is the journeyman that merely shows up and makes a presentation. The difference is not so much what each knows, what information each has stored in his or her brains, or what knowledge each has available at his or her finger tips, or how each presents the information. It is what each brings or does not bring to the student as a human being. Being human is not an arrangement of flesh and bone. It is a way of thinking, acting, and doing.

The teachers are those who rise above the others with something extra. They are competent and know their subject, but do not identify so strongly with their discipline that they lose their humanity. They go beyond the mechanics of presentation, of organizing a class, writing lectures, being prepared, making up quizzes and exams, grading performance, being prompt, and so on. They interplay on the mind, heart and spirit, for they believe that teaching without love is both shallow and hollow, perhaps wrong and meaningless. They are "wholeness" teachers who realize that learning is not separated from other aspects of human activity. They are concerned with feelings and thoughts. They are concerned with the spirit and emotion of the student as well as the intellect realizing that they are all interconnected and interacting parts of the same person. They believe that love and caring is good teaching and don't let technology or technique substitute for caring. They believe that helping students is more important than how they feel and what is comfortable for them. They are more concerned with the learning styles of the students rather than their teaching style. They come as lovers of learning, as classroom stimulants rather than barbiturates. They find benefit and the positive in all student efforts and attitudes, and don't know what a "wrong" or "can't" is. They do not look for students in their classes and therefore find only individual human beings. They are more concerned with the question "who are you" than the statement, "I am the professor." They are more concerned with the question, "are you learning" rather than the statement, "I am teaching." They are in a relationship with the students rather than with the subject, textbook, and/or class presentations. They do not entice, seduce or threaten with penalty or reward, by popularity, by grades, or by "feeling good." They earn respect rather than exercise authority and power. They care not only about their subject, but what goes on in the hearts and souls of each student. They listen more than they talk. They proclaim far less their ideas than help students to generate theirs. Their actions are designed to meet the needs of the students, not their own.

These teachers are nurturers. For them, everyone has potential. Everyone belongs in their classes. No one is a loser. No one is poor. No one is worthless. Their classes offer every student the opportunity to succeed. Their classes are filled by the enthusiastic spirit of humility, concern, trust, care, encouragement, community, respect, challenge, growth, and dignity. Their classes are cluttered with creativity, vision, and imagination. Their classes are loving and nurturing worlds of adventure, worlds of growth, worlds of transformation, and worlds of discovery.

They are never in a comfort zone, never satisfied with themselves. They are demanding of themselves as they are of their students. They make teaching seem so artful and effortless because they never stop working hard, never stop studying, never stop reflecting and examining themselves, and never stop carefully reflecting. They struggle to understand why they became teachers, struggle to articulate the purpose and goals of their care, and always asked "Why do I do what I do?" They care about what goes on inside their own heart and soul, and understand that they are not unending fountains of wisdom or sacred caretakers of knowledge. Boredom, routine are not their companions. They get up excited each morning and can't wait to get into the classroom. For them teaching is a calling. They struggle not to be imprisoned in their own personal and professional ivory towers.

They are humble. For them there are no sacred cows. Change is a welcomed challenge. They leave the classroom convinced a better job could have been done. They assume responsibility when something doesn't work in class. They are sufficiently defined inwardly that they know how to say to students, "I don't know, but let's find the answer together." They are learners who realize that they teach best not what we know but what we want to learn.

They act the way they want the students to live, with a value for themselves and each other, with values greater than the selfish, competitive, material rat race. They somehow understand the spirit of each student and touch that spirit. They come closer to the students, treat them with respect as individuals, and talk about themselves as human beings. They add to the stature of the student as a thinking, feeling, contemplating person. They embark students on unending voyage of discovering new interests and powers within themselves. They understand that education is not just a preparation for a career, but for a meaningful life. They dream big dreams, dreams not limited to the timely life of the classroom, but expansive, daring, and timeless dreams of life beyond the classroom.

That's my feeling of what a good teacher is. I'll hand in my assignment tomorrow. I hope they like it. I have to maintain my "A" in this course to keep by scholarship.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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