Sunday, September 30, 2012

How To Be A Teacher

How to be a teacher is about how to live.

The public perception in this country is that anyone can be a teacher or run a school, and that is a grievous misconception. It is crippling our schools and students. It is not about advanced degrees or credentials, either. Test scores are irrelevant. All the sacred cows we hear about in the media are not sacred at all.

Great teachers like Socrates and Jesus did not have classrooms. They did not have advanced degrees or licenses to teach. Some scholars believe they may have been illiterate. So what makes them great? They lived the life.

Teachers model proper behavior for students. They demonstrate on a daily basis that they are lifelong learners, maintaining a sense of awe and wonder about the world. For them, teaching is not a job but a calling, and they approach each and every class with a sense of joy and vigor. They do not sit behind their desks. They do not look for an opportunity to do less. They are out in the thick of things with their students, demonstrating with every fiber of their being the joy of learning.

A teacher is, at heart, the most dedicated student.

There are two primary skills every teacher needs: knowledge of the subject and multiple strategies for communicating with and firing up young minds. Too many teachers have knowledge, but lack people skills. They cannot communicate. Others communicate well, but have no interest in learning.

It is imperative that if a person has knowledge, he or she must avoid simply telling the student what must be learned. A teacher needs a knowledge base from which to draw, but more importantly, he or she must inspire and energize students to learn on their own. A teacher does not tell a student what to think, but teaches them how to think. Even more, a teacher provokes a student into thinking.

As a first duty, a teacher is not a friend to the student, although if friendship comes along the way, that is a good thing. This provocation to learn may not always be easy, and at times, a teacher may have to push the student hard. We learn little from success, and much from failure, and failure is often a painful, demoralizing experience. However, it is our response to failure that determines our character. How do we bounce back? Often, a teacher must use failure to provoke a student, and this introduces animosity. But the teacher always leaves room for the student to try again, to remedy his or her shortcomings and transcend limits. Good teachers push students out of their comfort zones.

A second commandment for teachers is to love learning, and model the love for students. Teachers who say they love to read, to write, to learn, better back that up in action. They must engage students in discussions of books and culture and current events. They must demonstrate emotional control and the confidence that comes with knowing. Good teachers model ethical behavior, and know what is moral and just. The teacher is one who loves life and learning, who enjoys knowing people and observing their behavior. A teacher with a sense of humor and a reservoir of humility will be an excellent mentor for students.

Third, a teacher is one who never rests in the pursuit of excellence in the classroom. If this means advanced degrees and credentials, those are noble achievements, but they will not, alone, make someone a teacher. Degrees can only improve a teacher. Right now, there are far too many people in classrooms who are not teachers, yet they have all the requisite degrees and credentials. A teacher is an auto-didactic, a self-starter, a highly motivated student.

Finally, a teacher uses every tool at his or her disposal to educate and fire young minds. Technology is a friend in the classroom. Field trips and educational experiences are a boon to a lesson. But no tool should be used at the expense of others. A teacher cannot have obsessions, other than to learn. Much has been made of technology and its myriad uses in the classroom, but remember that for centuries, education has come down to teacher and student. Socrates taught on the street. Jesus taught with his body, behavior, and stories. Always, the question must be asked: how does this lesson, this use of technology, this field trip, this experience, enhance the learning of the student? If the classroom has the latest computers and projectors, make use of them. If the school is woefully underfunded and ill equipped, as so many are these days, make use of what is available. A daily newspaper can offer hours of lessons. Be creative and always assess: did this work? If not, revise and try again. A good teacher is resilient.

Good teaching is not about improved test scores. The human mind cannot be evaluated by filling in bubbles. The one thing our national conversation about education seems to miss is the results often take decades to manifest. That C or D student in your class might some day wake up to change the world. This is what makes teaching a thankless job, because students walk through our classes every day only to rise up years from now and utilize what they have learned. They often do not return to tell us what they have done, or to thank us.

Teaching is about creating the future. Politicians care about the present and their own elected positions. They are not alone; many people care about their own conditions, the state of the world in their time. If they care about the future, it is their children's futures, but do they think generations ahead? Good teachers care about the present, the short and the long term future. They cannot afford to be shortsighted and myopic.

Desire to be known as one who brings joy and excitement to the classroom every day. Show your students you love to learn, and that the world is filled with wondrous things. Utilize every minute to educate, and turn ordinary days into extraordinary learning opportunities. Don't worry about test scores and benchmarks and the reams of paperwork. To be a teacher, one must keep at all costs the sense of awe and wonder so prevalent, but often ignored, in our lives.


  1. I just found your blog recently and I wanted to thank you for, writing. You are such a thinker and your students must be very lucky to have you as their guide.

  2. Thank you, and I appreciate that you stopped by and commented. Take care.

  3. This is a beautiful reflection on the spirit of a teacher. It's so true...we nurture a fascination with life and so want to share it with others....

  4. This is an excellent reflection on the spirit of a teacher. It's true...we nurture a fascination with life and seek to share it with others...

  5. Thank you, Dr. Shaules. And you model that spirit in your classes because I know from personal experience. The Talmud says that every person must do two things: choose a friend and choose a teacher. I'm lucky enough to have both in one person. Take care, and thank you again for reading and taking the time to comment.

  6. It is very true that "Teaching is about creating the future". There is an immense amount of damage a bad teacher can make for a person. However, as you also have mentioned, many people think that anybody can be a teacher, and both schools and universities are full of good scientists but lack good teachers/lecturers.

    I would also like to compliment your writing style, because it's easy to read although there is a lot of information in it.

    Finally, I completely agree with a concept of a teacher as the most dedicated student. But if the students are not, let's say, mature enough to face the fact that their teacher is a student himself? That he or she is not always right? I think it requires quite a high amount of intelligence and maturity to cope with a fact that one's teacher is not omniscient...

  7. Thank you for reading and commenting. Your words are insightful and wise, revealing someone who either is a teacher, or should be. And on your last point, I agree completely. I have encountered many classes who were unprepared to see the teacher as student. They often challenged me, as if proving the teacher wrong was the ultimate goal of the class. Still, I would not change my designation as student-in-chief for anything. It is the truth. The day we stop learning should be the day we die in my humble opinion. I'm perfectly fine with saying I don't know all the answers. It is the journey that is most important, the quest.

    Thanks again.


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