The art of great teaching

MATRIC results are upon us and fingers are going to be pointed at teachers in particular.
MATRIC results are upon us and fingers are going to be pointed at teachers in particular.
Matric results are upon us and fingers are going to be pointed at teachers in particular. But painting all teachers with the brush of incompetence and disinterest does a great disservice to the thousands of dedicated and passionate teachers who do their best, often in trying circumstances, and with little or no reward or recognition.

Teachers, like mothers, are often disregarded or viewed as deficient. George Bernard Shaw’s axiom, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is often bandied about; however, without mothers and teachers we would have anarchy.

I far prefer John Steinbeck’s view on teachers: “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

Many blame teachers for pupils’ poor performance, sometimes with justification, but often the situation is a lot more complex and more than one educator is involved. Often a problem goes back to the foundation phase of education. Those working with young adults are often required to undertake remedial action to counter years of poor schooling and poor learning strategies or to overcome entrenched attitudes to what is acceptable behaviour in class, including attendance.

Good teachers make sure that they know their subjects, keep up to date with changes in their subjects, prepare well, are punctual, attend all lessons, teach in all lessons, exercise classroom discipline, spend time setting fair and appropriate assessments, complete all marking within a reasonable period of time and provide feedback to the students on their performance and progress.

They try to make their classrooms places where learning can take place in an atmosphere that encourages pupils to listen, participate and learn.

But what makes a great teacher?

Think back to your own school years, or if you are still at school, your own teachers. Who do you remember, who are the ones who made a difference?

Often the teachers who inspired us, who helped us think differently about the world, who understood when we were going through a tough time, but who were able to reach us, are the ones we remember. In most cases, these are the teachers who offered MORE – more attention and time, more insight, more passion for their subject, more caring and empathy, more dedication. It’s the MORE we remember, not the facts that they were teaching us.

As teachers we need to remember that every day, in every lesson, we are influencing the hearts, minds and spirits of individuals. Also that excellence is a far better teacher than mediocrity. The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere. As Warren Bennis said, truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary.

Discipline is necessary but it can be done in a way so that each child, understands the rules and how they have been broken as well as the disciplinary actions to be taken.

It is often easier to break than to build, to crush and humiliate rather than support and encourage.

But if you do this, it doesn’t matter how well you know your subject, how brilliant your teaching methods are, whether you have done all your marking or made your classroom pretty with lots of posters. The person whose spirit has been crushed or broken will be unable to receive or enjoy any of that. Their minds will be focused on their feelings of hurt and shame, not on your teaching.

The rules must also be applied fairly – to all pupils not just to some.

Discipline must not be done in a way that embarrasses or humiliates anyone, especially in front of their peers. This may seem obvious to many but some teachers seem to take a special delight in picking on individual learners and trying to make them look stupid or inadequate.

This does nothing to encourage the learner to endeavour to do better or to try and reach their potential. All it does is harm the pupils’ self-image and put a stop to any attempts to improve.

As someone involved in teaching young adults I strive to constantly be aware that I have a role to play in enabling each of my students to reach their full potential, to become productive members of society and to realise the impact they can have on the world they live in.

This is not always easy. Sometimes it is downright difficult when faced with indifference, laziness, arrogance and attitudes of entitlement.

But other times it’s wonderful – when you see the spark of something new, when you make a connection, when you mark a test and realise that a weak student has managed, not only to pass but to grasp an important concept and use it effectively.

Those are the moments that make teaching worthwhile.

Ultimately as a teacher you have to be an optimist, to continue believing that you can and are making a difference to those whom you teach. If you cannot do this then you will not be able to light that spark and make the difference.

Teachers continue to teach well despite limited resources, poor classroom environments, weak and ineffectual school or college leadership, increasing administrative loads, new policies and curricula that are not properly introduced or are foisted on educators with little thought about the practical implications for the classroom teacher.

There can be battles with the system, for example to get your salary sorted out. One teacher I know has, after 18 years of teaching in government schools, finally got a permanent post but the Department of Basic Education refuses to recognise those years and has put her on an entry level teacher’s salary notch!

Others find that their hard work at getting further qualifications is worth little – if you have an honours degree and then get a PGCE (post graduate certificate in education) the department does not give you another notch. Or if you have a masters but it is not in the subject you teach you will not get an M+5 notch. This is dispiriting to say the least.

But these problems are not confined to South Africa. If you go to teaching websites for the US, Canada or the UK you find similar complaints from teachers.

Unfortunately the days when teachers were admired as community leaders and school leavers aspired to the enter this profession are over. For many who study to be teachers nowadays it is a last resort or because it is possible to get a teaching bursary from the department relatively easily.

But such students often do not intend teaching at all or lack a real desire to be a teacher. This is problematic since teaching is a calling, much like nursing or being a doctor or minister, used to be. And if you are going to survive in the long term as an effective teacher you must have a passion for teaching and for the children or young people whose lives who affect.

As teachers we should aspire to be excellent, we should aim to inspire our students and to help them find what it is they could or should be doing with their lives.

We should seek to open their minds to the possibilities that life holds.

Talking only takes you so far; what really makes a lasting impression is the life you lead, the example you set through your behaviour, your ethics and your enthusiasm. If we are honest, trustworthy, wise and caring we can make an impact on how our students live their lives. As teachers we should make every effort to be great teachers, to bring our MORE, every day.

Jayne Coleman is a lecturer at Buffalo City TVET College