Great Teachers — Through Their Behaviors And Attitudes — Serve As Good Role Models

In response to yesterday’s post, “The Dumbing Down Of What It Means To Be A Great Teacher,” Vic responded by asking, “What is your definition of a ‘great’ teacher, or an ‘excellent School,’ and to what degree should that definition be quantifiable?”

Vic, an attempt at a partial answer — here is my definition this morning of a “great teacher”:

A great teacher is one who has a message of truth, one who makes disciples of that truth, and one who succeeds in bringing enlightenment.  A teacher is great, because the truth that he or she teaches is great, and because the teacher makes that truth accessible to those willing to be disciplined.

Einstein was a great teacher. He disciplined himself to truth and brought enlightenment to himself and to humanity. He made that truth accessible to those willing to be disciplined. He modeled enlightened thinking.

It is interesting to consider what Johnny’s seventh grade math teacher could do, if he or she were motivated, to follow the model of what it means to be a “great teacher,” as shown by Einstein and other great ones throughout history.  The role of the public school teacher has become trivialized and constrained.

I heard William Glasser, psychologist and author of “The Quality School,” ask an audience of public school teachers:  “What is your number one job?”  Glasser followed up by declaring, “No — your number one job is not teaching. It is managing. In today’s schools a teacher’s biggest job is to be an effective manager.”

Glasser’s observation is right. And schools of education are focused on preparing future teachers to act as effective managers, guided by bureaucratic expectations. Johnny’s teacher is expected to be a good manager of his or her students and to get the students to advance in their competence in seventh grade math — as measured in test scores.

I agree with Davis Guggenheim, “Waiting for Superman” director, when he says, “We can’t have great schools without great teachers.”

But the problem is, the present system defines a “great teacher” as one whose students produce great test scores. In the big picture, this is a trivial definition.

Let’s agree, for the sake of argument, that within a few years, computers will be equipped with such compelling programs and will be guided by an ever improved artificial intelligence, that these machines will be effective teachers in all areas of curriculum.  In terms of today’s definition, these machines will be “great teachers” because their students will produce great test scores.

Teachers are haughty in their conviction that they will never be replaced by machines. But, if teaching is simply defined as transmitting curriculum and “great teaching” is defined as producing great student test scores, then, of course eventually machines will do these objectifiable tasks much better than humans, and at much less cost.

Teachers, for the sake of the future of their profession, need to describe what it means to be a “great teacher” in a way that elevates the teaching profession beyond what is replaceable by a machine.  OK. I am providing here my definition of a “great teacher” for free — that says, in part, (above):  A teacher is great because the truth he or she teaches is great.

The point of education is to develop the skills, habits, attitudes, thoughtfulness, knowledge, needed to mature into one’s full potential.  The great truths that a great teacher makes available gives insight into one’s potential and how that potential can be fulfilled. The essence of education is to “Know thyself” to develop one’s self, to understand one’s self — and to know and understand the world and society one is part of.  The surest way to develop into a mature human — worldly wise and empowered in one’s own thinking — is to apprentice oneself to a human who is already on the right path. The teacher / student relationship is one settled deep in our psyche. A child’s first, and most important, teachers are his or her parents.

What is clear is that many children and many adults have never had the opportunity to apprentice themselves to a worthy role model — someone worthy of their respect, someone who through their behaviors and attitudes could serve as a good example of a person developing into maturity. A great teacher is someone who demonstrates growth toward human maturity and someone who empowers his or her apprentices to do the same.

We each of us start — like an acorn — with a great potential. But few of us grow into the tall and strong oaks needed for our democracy.  I discussed the acorn / oak view of human maturity in Thoughts Occasioned By the Death of Tim Russert

Few of us grow into our maturity.  A great teacher is one who can show the way, because he or she is a practitioner of the way.  Great teachers can be found among the ranks of those teaching seventh grade math, unappreciated by the system — except to the extent that his or her success is measured in test scores. What is needed is a system that is built to sustain and empower great teaching and great teachers.

The transformation that is needed in public education, I believe, is possible via an awakened democracy. The starting point is an in-depth discussion of foundational questions.   This contemplation of how to define a “great teacher” will be part of the book I am contemplating,  “Public Education in Kettering Ohio in The Year 2025”


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