What’s the most important attribute of a good teacher?
Some might say intelligence.
You want a teacher who knows the subject matter and can convey it clearly to students.
Others might say classroom management.
You want a teacher who keeps things organized and gets kids to behave.
I’m not saying intelligence, classroom management and a host of other qualities are unimportant, but if you approach your students with good will in your heart, the rest seems to fall into place.
This isn’t a long-held pedagogical belief I could have articulated for you at the beginning of the school year.
It came to me – as did so much else – from my students.
At the end of the year as my 7th graders are finishing up their final projects and we’re tidying up the room, I always give them a little survey about their experience in the class.
“I’ve been grading you all year,” I say. “Now’s your turn to grade me.”
The surveys can be anonymous – kids needn’t put down their names, and whatever they write has no impact on their grades.
Yet the results are always enlightening.
But this year it was one of the simplest comments that really got me thinking.
“He was kind.”
That’s what one of my students told me that I had done especially well during the year.
“He was kind.” That’s all.
It was a response that was echoed by many of my students.
Another child wrote:
“He was kind (and awesome). One of the best teachers.”
“He can’t [improve]. He is the best he can be and is the teacher I wish I had every year.”
This is all very flattering, but what exactly did all this niceness mean?
How did being a kind teacher help me do my job? What did I do that helped students learn?
They had an answer for that, too:
“He came and sat with me and helped me through everything I needed help with.”
“If we needed help on anything he helped and explained everything well so work was easier.”
“What my teacher did to help me succeed was that he made me feel motivated to do the work in class and not giving us so much work at once.”
“[He] taught me how to write essays, indent on papers and showed me a lot of useful things.”
Another particularly enlightening comment was this one:
“I don’t know [how he could improve], but in this class you grew with us. So uh yeah.”
And I do try to change and grow with my students. When your mandate is to individualize instruction to fit each particular child, I don’t know how you can do otherwise.
This means opening yourself up and letting students know who you are and what you stand for.
I try not to inflict my political, religious or philosophical beliefs on my classes. However, I think some core values come through.
For instance, my students knew I was going to Connecticut to give a TED Talk on the current state of public schools.
They knew my thoughts on standardized testing and school privatization – perhaps not in detail but the general shape of them, certainly. They knew my firm conviction against racism, sexism and prejudice of any kind.
Perhaps that’s why one of them wrote this:
“You’re not only a good teacher. You’re a good friend, and man.”
“P.S. – Nice jokes and commentary.”
Of course there were dissenting opinions. One child thought I was too nice:
“He is way too nice for me and you give way too much essays for people to handle. But overall grade 94%. He doesn’t like Tom Brady so yeah. And he likes the Steelers.”
I guess no one’s perfect. But how interesting she thought either she deserved a stronger hand or would have been more motivated by fear and consequences. Yet I have to take her with a few grains of salt because this student identified herself on her response and had a friendly rivalry with me about football. She said I was too nice but then referenced our interpersonal rapport.
Another student highlighted how I wasn’t excessively permissive:
[He was good at] “Helping me with instructions and keeping me on task.”
Most comments were unbridled approbation:
What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed? – “Uh, everything.”
In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction? – “I’m not sure. That’s how good a teacher he was.”
“I think you did awesome, Mr. Singer. Thanks for being my reading teacher!”
“I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He’s already a great teacher.”
And so another school year comes to an end.
I’ll miss this class. It was the first year I taught exclusively 7th grade. I’d taught one or two sections of that grade before, but never only that grade.
I’m more used to 8th grade. You wouldn’t think there’d be a world of difference between the two. And who knows? Perhaps if I teach the same grade level next year things will be even more unexpected because the kids will be different.
But when that final bell chimed, I was surprised that so many kids came up to me with hugs and tears.
They really didn’t want to see me go, and, frankly, I don’t want to see them go, either.
If I could follow them next year, I would.
I gave them everything I had to give.
I gave them my heart. I shared with them my life.
And I got back so much more.
That’s what non-teachers don’t understand.
Education is created through often reciprocal relationships.
Learner and teacher are tied together in a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which and sometimes there is no difference at all.
Thank you so much, last year’s students.
Thank you for letting me be your teacher.
Thank you for bringing out the best in me as I tried to do the same for you.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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