One piece of wisdom emerging from our ongoing discussions about education is that teachers matter most. They matter more than any other single factor in determining the quality of an education. Studies show it, and students realize it.
But what makes great teachers great? I was wondering that myself a few years ago, and I decided to take a direct, old-fashioned approach. I would set out to find some of the greatest teachers in America and talk to them about teaching.
I scoured America and found some inspiringly great teachers in the public and private schools, in universities, but also on the athletic field, in the culinary school, in the ballet studio, at the speedway, and in the operating room. They taught circus arts, horseshoeing, brain surgery, and even alligator wrestling.
And while their styles of teaching varied greatly, I found five qualities they have in common.
They are so passionate about teaching that it is more a calling than a job. Minnesota first-grade teacher Lynette Wayne says simply, “Teaching chose me.” When the retired teachers I spoke with kept falling back into present tense, I felt that it was because the found teaching inseparable from their very identities.
Great teachers care. For them, care is more than a feeling; it is a lived commitment to do whatever it takes to bring to students knowledge, skills, and wisdom. Teachers want with all their hearts for their students to succeed. Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington teaches his players by the saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The great teachers are sensitive to their students. They have a keen intuition for what they are thinking, how they are feeling, what will move them forward. But sensitivity does not mean soft. These teachers are taskmasters, and at the Actor’s Studio West, Martin Landau coaches his students to confront their most difficult areas. Farriery instructor Doug Butler has them make one hundred horseshoes to get one right.
Great teachers are natural communicators. They seem to have a gift—carefully honed through experience—of transmitting what they understand to another human being. Whether through asking the right questions, giving clear explanations, assigning the right activities, or using magically effective metaphors, these teachers know how to transmit their own expertise to the students.
And they are experts. Their teaching greatness is more an outgrowth of their expertise in their subject area than a separate skill, as if the highest level of understanding math, physics, or ballet dancing is to understand how to teach it. Vince Dunn fought fires in New York City for decades before he developed a new level of awareness and began to study fires, then to write about them, and ultimately to teach others how to fight them.
The great teachers have these qualities in common, but not much else. They certainly do not share a method. Some lecture, some talk little. But they have passion, care, sensitivity, the ability to communicate, and high levels of expertise.
Great teachers will always be rare, and good ones will never be as plentiful as we wish. There are also things we can do to increase the numbers of the great and the good, such as pay them well, respect them, encourage them to teach in their own style, and empower them to make the educational decisions best left to them. And we can remember, when we have waded through the fads, the politicking and the buzzwords, that they are the key ingredient. Anyone who wants to see these inspiring interviews can read them in Conversations with Great Teachers by Bill Smoot, Indiana University Press.