Thursday, July 9, 2009

Great Teachers: Born or Made?

By Paul Moliken, Prestwick House Senior Editor

I went to an all-boys academic high school in Philadelphia back in the middle of the last century. The teachers there placed more knowledge into my head than 95% of the professors I had in college. While the emphasis was on learning, appreciation, and discovery, it was always clear that wit went hand in hand with wisdom when it came to teaching. The popular classes, the ones students craved to be assigned to were those in which the teacher did more than simply lecture. He or she was born to the task of stimulating the brains of intellectually curious adolescents. That ability cannot be taught in education classes, in standard deviations, or in bell curves, all of which are useful, but unnecessary in the hands of a skilled educator and dreadfully dull in the hands of a teacher who never deviates from prepared notes.

One English teacher foisted upon his classes 10,000 word essays on arcane and difficult subjects, which he graded on an upwards curve, making sure that the best actually were head and shoulders above the rest. He was extraordinarily difficult, yet admired and respected for his knowledge and ability to teach. Once asked if he threw the essays down the stairs and graded them at random based on where they landed, Mr. R_____ responded dryly, “No, I throw them into the air, and those that don’t come down get A’s.” He was among the most beloved teachers we ever encountered. How many teachers actually deserve that adjective? Those who are born knowing how to reach young minds.

Mr. D­____, a physics teacher, just out of college, spoke to us of the properties of simple machines [this is as boring as is possible to be boring to someone interested in poetry and language], but he once lectured while standing on his hands for at least ten minutes. I still remember: “Work equals force times distance.” We saw it in practice, as the physics was explained by a born teacher who knew how to inspire.

How was I going to grasp mole weights or memorize the periodic chart of the elements if I just didn’t care about the subject? My chemistry professor, Dr. B­­­­____, made his classes fascinating because each day he presented us with a riddle or told a long hilarious story that illustrated some principle of chemistry. Why was the night watchman’s gold watch discovered in the vat of hydrochloric acid, but not his bones? The answer is, not as one student responded, because “It took a licking and kept on ticking” but because “Noble metals are impervious to acids.” This man understood the power of a joke to make a point. He was born to teach.

The three anecdotes above are not meant to imply that students will not succeed through straight lecturing or memorization of facts; the stories are designed to illustrate my point that a bit of relaxation and a lessening of "teacher dispenses words of wisdom, and the students absorb them" will invariably help students grasp what the teacher needs to impart.


Peter Pappas said...

I disagree with the notion that teaching is kind of innate "gift" that only some are born with. Teachers are nurtured with experience, training, and reflection. For more on quality PD see my post:
A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer

paul said...

The original blog was not intended to imply that only those with that ‘innate gift’ or ability can or should be in front of the classroom. We are not in disagreement there. However, the idea that courses can create a skilled teacher to me is foolish. Many of the teachers I had, and many of those with whom I taught, could not effectively communicate the wealth of knowledge they possessed. My blog’s purpose was to indicate that there is a necessity to offer learning within an interesting presentation. After all, I do not know if any of these fabulous teachers went through formal education courses and wrote out precise-to-the-minute lesson plans with properly worded educational objectives. All I do know, though, is that the three I mentioned were among the majority, the influential ones in my school, the ones ‘we kids’ admired and spoke about lovingly in years of reunions, after each one of them had passed on to that great classroom in the sky. The others, the pedantic lecturers hidden behind their podiums reading from faded notes unchanged since their own college days, the ones who had one method of teaching, who were close-minded and would not brook any deviation from rote memorization and spitting back what they delivered to us, received our scorn, sarcasm, and derision, even after these many years had passed. I taught for more than 20 years, and this is the first time I have had in print to thank some of the inspiring mentors I had in high school.