What skills do you need in order to teach well?

April 1, 2010

I often stress the perspective that the first thing you need do be a great teacher is love: love of your subject, love of teaching, love of learning. The skills you need to actually teach come naturally from the fundamental interest, care, and honesty.

But is this all? In the comments of the last post, Katie referred me to this recent article in the New York Times magazine, and since I read it, I’ve been trying to work out what I think of it. Briefly, there are a lot of small technical tricks to becoming a good teacher(check out the videos they provide. I particularly like the last two, about hand signals and joy). I’ve spent time working with different ages and different backgrounds, and the truth is that knowing some of the technical tricks for holding kids’ attention can be enormously helpful.

The best way to learn these techniques is by teaching, reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, and observing other teachers and trying out what you see work for them. I’m a little dubious of any attempt to work these things out in an abstract setting. And even though these techniques can be effective, you have to teach in a manner that is honest for you. The idea that we can train teachers (or students) to learn a bunch of techniques that they can apply quasi-mechanically is a dangerous one, and it has a way of cropping up in the background of our national discussions of education.

The point is that if you are a teacher, you have to own your education as a teacher. It’s great to see these techniques. Some will work for you and some won’t. It’s up for you to decide what you want your classroom to look like. Knowing the possibilities is great, but you don’t have to be exactly like anyone else.

On page 6 of the article, we see another important point:

ANOTHER QUESTION IS THIS: Is good classroom management enough to ensure good instruction? Heather Hill, an associate professor at Harvard University, showed me a video of a teacher called by the pseudonym Wilma. Wilma has charisma; every eye in the classroom is on her as she moves back and forth across the blackboard. But Hill saw something else. “If you look at it from a pedagogical lens, Wilma is actually a good teacher,” Hill told me. “But when you look at the math, things begin to fall apart.”

And here’s the rub: if you don’t know the math (or whatever subject you’re teaching), or don’t know how to start thinking your way into it, classroom techniques aren’t going to help you so much. It’s like the technical pieces of teaching are the cup, and the content is what goes inside. If the cup is cracked, not much is going to stay inside it, but you’ve got to have something to put in there too.

The other thing that gets me about the videos I linked to earlier is that they all highlight classes where run in a very similar way: teacher at the front, kids responding to them in something like a one-on-one way. In my experience, getting kids to work in groups is often the most effective tool a teacher has. I’d like to see more examples of this when it comes to effective techniques. My best classes I’ve ever had are the ones where I’ve been redundant in the classroom: the kids are working together, they’ve got some problem that completely absorbs their attention, and I, the teacher, am just hanging around, seeing what they’re up to.

Then I start thinking about the problem too, and there’s no teacher in the class at all; we’re all just people, seriously playing.

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