The ‘Good Teacher’ Question – a student perspective

               Daniel Sokol,  St Edmund Hall, Oxford University, United Kingdom

'Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much 
arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but 
knowledge in the making.'
                        --John Milton

he epigram above goes a long way in providing an answer to this 
oft-repeated question.  Of course, we must make a distinction between 
Aristotle instructing passionate disciples on the definition of happiness 
and a humble foreign language teacher attempting to familiarize a horde
of boisterous adolescents to the intricacies of the English interrogative 
sentence.  Whether adolescents back in the 4th century BC were radically 
different in demeanor to today's is for the anthropologists and historians 
to decide; in any case, Aristotle taught at his own establishment, the 
Lyceum, which was populated with erudite and eager scholars, many of whom 
had traveled great distances to study there.  Few would deny that a teacher 
must teach according to his pupils.  Professor Stephen Hawking would explain 
the concept of black holes to his Ph.D. student rather differently than
he would to an inquiring GCSE student.  Nevertheless, there are a number
of universal features that bind all first-rate teachers.  The astute but
weary teacher would point to the first clause of the epigram and dismiss it
as quixotic.  The even more astute good teacher would then explain where
the fallacy lay: the desire to learn is not a precondition to successful 
teaching, but a consequence.  The majority of students do not initially
enter the classroom with a genuine desire to, say, describe a picture
in English.  The teacher must instill it in them.  This is the most
important task he faces and this is largely achieved by his own enthusiasm.  
The teacher must be the most enthusiastic person in the room.  Enthusiasm
is eerily contagious.

Waiting for my first lecture on "Advanced Word Morphology" last year, I
feared the worst.  The lecturer, a plump and immaculately dressed man, 
stormed into the room and, from that moment on, never lost our attention.  
To think that someone could be so excited about the irregular plurals
in English was a little odd at first, but it nevertheless made us listen
to find out what could induce such animated grimaces and gesticulations. 
In the following week, the attendance doubled.  The good teacher then, has
a veritable passion for what he teaches or, less romantic but equally 
effective, can pretend to be.  To assume that a human being can be
veritably fascinated by the prospect of describing a picture in English 
would transcend the boundaries of good sense.  Once the teacher's enthusiasm
has infused into the pores of his pupils, the more cerebral aspects of his 
character come into play.  He must possess a sound knowledge of
whatever he teaches and be ready to answer in a clear and persuasive manner 
the arguments and opinions that Milton says will inevitably follow.  The 
teacher-pupil interaction must be symbiotic, not merely a master-slave 
relationship with the teacher acting as an all-knowing, infallible tyrant.  
Patience is an important asset in a profession where abilities invariably 
differ from pupil to pupil and remaining enthusiastic is by no means an
easy task.  Related to patience is the ability to lucidly explain and 
ungrudgingly reiterate aforementioned points.  No amount of enthusiasm
will prevent some people from struggling with a concept or notion and thus
the need for patience, tolerance, and clarity.

The qualities described so far are universal and form a circle that 
excludes all bad teachers but, naturally, also contains all the good
ones.  Within that circle, diversity abounds.  One will find a good teacher
whose humor and wit break the barriers between tedium and interest and retain
the pupils' attention throughout the lesson.  Another teacher might break
the same barrier by his sheer acting talent - by his pauses, gestures, 
thought-provoking sentences, and bright pink sweater.  Another might
use computers, word-games, and stickers to render the learning more
compelling and engender enthusiasm.  Teaching is a creative profession and, 
just like there are many ways to perform a Chopin ballad, there are many 
ways to teach people English or any other subject.  Laboriously plowing 
through a textbook will not make use of both the teacher's or pupil's 
creative ability and the desire to learn will consequently vanish from both 
parties.  The good teacher, by definition creative, will attempt to extract 
the artistic elements of his pupils by his idiosyncratic variations on the
repetitive nature of textbook learning.

The first step towards reaching the elite group of good teachers - the
galactic group to which Socrates, Cortot, and Bollettieri belong - is
the inculcation of the "desire to learn."  Once this is achieved,
knowledge, argumentative adroitness, clarity, patience, and creativity 
are called upon. Only then will the teacher have secured a place in the 
divisive circle and be proclaimed "a good teacher."


Dear Educator:
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Dr. Ben Varner,   Associate Professor of English
English Department,   University of Northern Colorado
Greeley, CO 80631   USA