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