What Makes a Good Teacher?

A few days ago Victoria, recently six, turned to me and said, “Why do we have to do any school?” Mind you, she has not “done school” for some time — this came up somewhat randomly at breakfast. We had a conversation that quickly turned silly on her part — I think she started to feel self-conscious about not having a good answer to her own question — but I left it open, inviting her to talk more with me about it.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about college. I’ve been reading some thoughts of some unschoolers who are rather anti-college. College and then grad school — while sometimes difficult in the extreme, at least at a personal if not always intellectual level — were for me like coming home. I understand that not everyone will feel that way, but at the same time I can’t understand a dismissive reaction to all forms of institutionalized education, just because some forms don’t work.

So I’ve been trying to think about teachers who really taught me something. Not just teachers who loved me, or subjects that were hard, but moments when having a teacher made a difference.

This was my the first memory that came up:

My freshman year of college: I was 16, far from home, freaked out, but also ecstatic looking over the catalog of liberal arts courses that all sounded so fantastic — Russian government, anthropology, theater, and literature literature literature.

My SAT score enabled me to bypass the freshman into to English lit class and go straight into a sophomore world lit seminar: Plato to Tolstoy, in one year. Everything was going well until I had to write my first paper for World Lit. I think it was on the Iliad — something Greek.

I wrote about Athena, discussing the various things she symbolized and how she symbolized it. I proudly handed in my paper — I knew I was a good writer, if nothing else — and was soon summoned to a meeting with my teacher. Kindly but firmly she showed me what I had done: I had taken “data” from the story, classified it, categorized it, rearranged it into new groupings. But I had not offered any analysis of it. I had not explained why my categorizing and classifying offered any insight into the character, the story, the writing — anything.

She offered me the chance to rewrite, but I took the option of writing a double-length paper on the next one instead. It turned out much better, but we were all still expected to revise for the final draft. I was ill, I couldn’t make it to class, but I sent along my revision.

I am embarrassed to tell you want I did. I cut the paper into paragraphs and rearranged them according, I thought, to her suggestions, taped them back together (the real cut-and-paste, pre computers), and called it good. (To be clear, this was the penultimate draft, not intended to be the final draft!)

Obviously this was unacceptable, and her response was probably as kind as it could be. She sent back a note with my friend simply saying, “I’m not sure what this is.” Indeed.

I approached my revision like I had approached my first paper — I didn’t engage with it, I just reorganized it and relabled things under new headings.

You probably won’t be surprised that that kind of writing had been not only adequate but even praised when I was in high school. Maybe that is OK — maybe that is walking before you can run. But the time had come to run — I was a 16yo freshman in a sophomore class at a big-time Eastern liberal arts college.

This teacher did two things that made a real difference. One, she asked to meet with me *on a Saturday* at the campus library to help me understand the difference between reorganizing information and analyzing it. Two, she led discussions that showed me how this was possible. I can still see her at the head of our little seminar table, clearly passionate about the golden bough episode in the Aeneid, about Italian Renaissance art, about the deliciousness of the ambiguity of language and the power that could hold.

I was in a teaching workshop once where someone said we needed to give our students “the power to mean.” Which is a pompous-sounding phrase but still exactly right. Students need to learn to say something that *means* something.

I gave a conference paper and one of my friends offered the (backhanded?) compliment that (unlike some of the other papers) “at least you made points about your points.” In other words, I think, at least I offered a reason for why anything I was saying mattered.

I think of this a lot now when I listen to political opinion, BTW. There is a lot of relabeling and classifying: that is socialist, this is like Reagan. This is Catholic, this is not Catholic. A tax is called a fee, or called redistribution of wealth, depending on who you’re trying to rile up or pacify. Like many of my old students — like me, back then — too many people don’t understand the difference between description and analysis, either when reading or speaking/writing. Even an accurate, incisive description is merely a place to start.

This class and this teacher were a crucial step for me in “learning to mean” and “making points about points.” I don’t remember specifics about War and Peace (lots of Peters and Pierres) or The Republic (one friend called it her guide to life), but I remember clearly trying to open new areas of my brain in a way that quite literally changed everything.

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4 Comments

Filed under Our Philosophy (such as it is), Why Homeschool?

4 responses to “What Makes a Good Teacher?

  1. Such an interesting post. You were phenomenally lucky to have had such an interested and kind teacher. That is not my experience of university (college) at all. Mind you, university in every way is vastly different here than in the States. Kids generally don’t have to move too far from home to attend, for one thing. In my day, many were flatting (sharing a house with strangers) and working at least part time (I worked full time on an evening shift) but these days it seems more common to just stay at home until you have your degree, and thus save money. So the culture of university is different here, to begin with.

    But then, our whole culture is different. Unless you want to become a scientist, lawyer, doctor, etc, a university degree counts for very little. Employers are more often looking for work experience. It is still possible in our country to go from being a volunteer who picks up rubbish at the park to being a Conservation Department manager. If you have a university degree but no experience, you will find it hard getting a job.

    I think it has to do with the fact that we are still a very young and in many ways unsophisticated country. We still have the Kiwi Can Do pioneer attitude towards everything – the “number eight fencing wire” approach. (IE, with a piece of number eight fencing wire and a little invention, you can fix anything.)

    That is why I personally am not so worried about university for my child. Especially because she is on an advanced track, I think university represents more of a buckle along the road rather than an expressway to her goals. The job she has always wanted needs no formal qualifications.

    I say all this to show you why I am perhaps a little bit anti-university (I myself wasted good years and have a huge debt for the sake of a degree that is basically useless.) BUT also to show that it’s a very different story in my country. If I lived in USA, I’d probably be planning for and worrying about Rose’s college experience without hesitation.

  2. lapazfarm

    I absolutely adored college and grad school. As an undergrad especially I felt like I was in heaven. What a luxury to be able to indulge in nothing but feeding my curiosities all day long, and hanging out with friends all evening. After an abysmal high school experience, college is where I found the joy of stretching my mind to accommodate new ideas and information, new ways of thinking (for me it was science rather than literature/writing).It was education as I knew deep down it always should have been but never was in 12 years of public schooling. And yes, it was teachers who knew and loved their subjects well, and had high expectations of their students that inspired me to finally perform to my ability. Abilities I had no idea I even possessed!
    All this to say that I hope like crazy that this is the kind of educational experience I can provide for my children. But I want it for them right now. They should not have to wait for college to see what a passion for learning can be. I want to be that teacher for them, if I can. At least, that is my goal.

  3. You make an excellent point and I think that shift to analysis is exactly what college does offer. And where many struggle, particularly if it is not made clear to them what is expected.

    That’s why I so liked that book I reveiwed recently (Essaying the Past) as he does what I imagine your World Lit teacher did for you — spells out what analysis involves on a practical level.

  4. Great post. I would love to read more about this. How do you think you are teaching your children this lesson?

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