How to become a great #teacher: magic, training, or practice?
Reflecting on two recent stories about great or inspiring teachers, I can’t help but wonder why our society, maybe it’s just the news media, focuses on the great teacher being a “hero,” someone who comes to the rescue of students who are poorly served in school.
The first story is about a teacher who builds trust through handshakes (see below if you missed it). He uses a “gimmick” he copied from Lebron James, who greets each teammate with a special handshake before a game. News reports on this teacher’s technique have garnered headlines like, “millions around the world are talking (WCNC in Charlotte, NC).” OK, the skeptic in me wonders why all the hoopla. There are plenty of teachers
nationwide who greet students warmly every single day, and not with gimmicks just with a caring voice, a sincere hello, or convincing eye-to-eye contact with a smile. We never see news stories about these thousands of teachers. Gimmicks aren’t necessary, but they are what get reported by the news media leaving everyone with the impression that good teachers need to be a hero or an entertainer. Remember the movie Dead Poet’s Society and the unconventional techniques of John Keating, the English teacher played by Robin Williams. Teacher-as-entertainer was presented as the key ingredient to good teaching.
The truth of the matter is that I have never seen a good teacher get by with just a gimmick. All good teachers work hard at their craft, spending countless hours preparing, rehearsing, and setting up their learning environment to make it possible for learning. While magic and personality can get you out of the starting gate, long-term success, running the sprint for a full mile, requires training, practice, failure, iteration, more practice, and continuous reflection. These are the qualities that make for good teaching.
By the way, I have never seen Barry White Jr. teach, so he might be a great teacher independent of his handshake routine. I also agree with his assertion that establishing solid, trusting relationships with students is critical if a teacher wants to be successful. However, I would rather see a story about his full range of abilities that lead to good teaching, not merely his handshaking strategy, which doesn’t necessarily translate well to other teachers. He makes it work, but other good teachers couldn’t. There are practices that lead to good teaching that all teachers can and should learn.
So take the story about a “demanding” Mr. Dorsey, a much different kind of story about a great teacher on NBC Nightly News. Mr. Dorsey directs the Dillard High School jazz ensemble, one of the best high school jazz ensembles in the country. Check them out on YouTube (click here). Mr. Dorsey cares about his students but is focused on:
understanding that life brings us struggles.
He believes in his students and demands that they dig deep for their best, no gimmicks, just hard work. A student says this about Mr. Dorsey:
he is not subtle about it, it’s about the music, but more importantly it’s about life.
Mr. Dorsey’s words of wisdom ring true:
sometimes you may come up short, even if you do your best, Ok, but if you do your best and you have no regrets, you are alright, you won.
So for Mr. Dorsey it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the work ethic that each student applies to the task of learning and trying to fulfill their potential. In my mind, his story is the real story of an excellent teacher.
I have never seen Mr. Dorsey teach, but I have watched and listened to the fruits of his labor. The jazz ensemble is excellent, so he must be a good teacher if we judge his effectiveness by his students’ results, as well as their tributes to his other techniques.
By contrasting the stories of Mr. Dorsey and Mr. White, I am not comparing their effectiveness or their styles as much as pointing out that as a society we need to be extremely careful about how we tell the story of teacher effectiveness. It is a complex story so let’s not package it with the “gimmicks” some teachers use. Let’s tell the story by looking more carefully at what is behind the individual, their techniques, personality, practice, and the results they achieve.
Good teaching comes in many unique packages. Check out the CFT post, What Good Teachers Do and Don’t Do, some thoughts from a book by Carol Ann Tomlinson. In addition, read the CFT post, What Qualities Make for an Ideal School or Classroom. Good teachers are always on the move, they are learners at heart who try to use diverse practices to engage all learners. There is some magic involved, but there is lots of training and a great deal of practice, thousands of hours.