To be or not to be…a great teacher

In his highly instructional and engaging book Everything I Know About Writing, John Marsden’s dedication page reads:

In my primary, secondary and tertiary schooling I had some terrible teachers, a lot of mediocre ones, and a few who were wonderful. Among this last group were: Mrs Marjorie Scott, Mr Tom Baddiley, Mr Robert Parker and Mr Nigel Krauth. This book is dedicated to them, with thanks for their encouragement, support and inspiration.

John Marsden

I would hazard a guess that most of us had a similar experience. I can remember the names of all my terrible teachers and how they made me feel, and I look back fondly on those very few teachers who treated me like a person, and saw something in me beyond a loud, but terrified teenager. All the mediocre teachers have seeped from my memory leaving barely an imprint.

As I wrote in the ‘About Me’ section of this blog – I remember two of my high school English teachers as being in the ‘wonderful’ group; Mrs Panayotis and Mrs Nikolades. I often think about what it was that elevated them into a truly special group of educators who helped me become me. I believe it was because they took the time to see beyond the facade that I, and no doubt countless other teenagers present at high school. They actually read my writing and saw some positives in it, even if there was technically more to work on than celebrate. Oh how I wish more teachers did this.

Now, as a teacher in the classroom, I realise how challenging it is to juggle the needs of 28 students and give them each enough of my time to make a difference.

Writing conferences are not a new idea but I know there are plenty of schools out there who haven’t yet adopted this critical practice. To create the time and space for a one on one discussion with a student about their writing and about them as writers, is just about the richest data you can obtain.

By creating a routine, where teacher and student can work together, with the aim of improving the writer, rather than a particular piece, everyone benefits. Teachers learn more about the writing habits of their students, their passions and challenges, and students have a golden opportunity to talk about themselves, without having to cut through the noise of 27 other kids. Together they can establish goals for the student to think about and work on, and at their next conference, reflect on how they’ve progressed.

Without writing conferences, I wouldn’t have begun to understand the needs of each individual student across the years. I may’ve missed the incredible poetry of A, because she was terrified of making spelling mistakes. I may’ve been blind to the dedicated revisions made by M, who was able to write coherent parallel storylines in year 4, or I may never have told L how her experimenting with structure lifted her piece from good to incredible. I was able to do these things though, and share in the triumphs of these young writers, because I made time.

I was fortunate enough to work in a school who valued the opportunity to conference. I can see how difficult it would be to implement in a school that did not. It does take time and organisation, but it is without question the richest source of information you can gather on your writers.

In another post I’ll examine the importance of being a teacher-writer in order to better help your students. I think it stands to reason though, that it would be challenging to have a meaningful conference about the effort and struggles of a student writer, if the teacher is unfamiliar with those struggles themselves.

Quite often teachers question whether or not they are, in fact, having a positive impact on their students, or if they might instead be one of those mediocre teachers John Marsden refers to. (The fact that you’re bothering to read a blog about writing automatically elevates you from the ‘terrible’ category 🙂

A few days ago I received a message from a parent that made me teary.

H loves writing, she loves it even more than reading now…She has you to thank for this, H was never a writer until she met you.

Parent

I’m nothing out of the ordinary as a teacher. I’m no John Keating from Dead Poets Society. But I do try to remember how those two great teachers made me feel about writing, and offer the same courtesy to my students. By conferencing with them regularly, listening to them, and reading their work, I am making time for them.

I hope you all have a few teachers that bring back fond memories for you? Why not write about them and what made them so special? Or the reverse and write about how those evil, swamp-dwelling teachers made your life a misery. Either way, write something, drink some tea, and enjoy. xx

9 thoughts on “To be or not to be…a great teacher

  1. I’d suggest teacher-writer lives in the same world as teacher-artist for the the performing and visual arts. Not just because of my own situation but by observing how students can get something out of your class even if they don’t want to be there.
    This is my mantra for the year. Me as an artist has to come before me as a teacher in order to serve the needs of my kids I must be full to the brim of artistic goodness.
    Well I’m going to try, it’s a musical year so it could just go straight into the bin but let’s try.

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  2. I personally think is getting away from the effective teaching we grew up with, we didn’t try to reinvent the wheel so to speak, but improve as we understand. I understand the import of writing skills, math skills, and the rest of the curriculum, also the methods our teachers used, but I bring in additional understanding from my own experiences and understanding. And my goal is always to ensure the basics, then move from their, but also more for the students to realize for themselves, but also correct errors in thinking. **The difficulty is when people/teachers see the problems and attempt to correct the problems with ideas that move away from simplicity. For myself, I see the simpler I get, the better they understand. To an outsider, they may think I’m complex, but I’m not really. I teach the essays, then challenge them. I teach story writing so they understand characters, setting, plots, and various tools. We discuss checkbooks, private versus public businesses/jobs/careers. What is an entrepreneur? And more. But always relating back to the real world. What are they interested in doing.

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  3. A friend who became a teacher, for a short time, after I had been instructing for a few years, said she was trying to make a difference in their lives. Jokingly, I said I wasn’t trying to make a difference in anyone’s life. I just was going to teach to the best of my abilities and encourage them to find their own road. Yes, in that, their lives might change for the better. I just tried to be honest and in discussions, their own doors open.

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    1. Agreed. I think most teachers have that mindset (or most of the ones I know) which is to do the best that they can to help kids grow. Some kids will remember us for having done that, others won’t and that’s life. Some of the teachers that were the least effective for me were the best teachers for some for my friends.

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  4. As I understand it, the more difficult the times get, the more we attempt to find the solution. Good hearted people will attempt to improve and help others. The difficulty, in some situations, is like the boy who was seeking the dollar he lost, in the yard. A friend comes by asking where he lost the dollar. Oh, in the house. Well, why are you looking for it in the yard? The lights are better.
    This was a great joke that reminded me of something. Sometimes, in the attempt to fix a problem, and sometimes the problem isn’t even a problem outside the realm of real life. But sometimes the problem is a problem, but we then attempt to repair, fixing the wrong problem. As when someone brings her car in and the mechanic fixes the starter when the alternator needed replacing.
    We have excellent teachers. We have not as excellent teachers. And some teachers are already doing well, but they “believe” they’re not doing well enough. So, in order to remain motivated, to demonstrate determination, and to see effective changes, they change what was already working. [The problem is if you change what’s already working, thinking you have to reinvent yourself, because times have changed, you might one day realize you had it right right from the beginning.]. But why are the students’ grades not improving? Why are the test scores so low? And what about their efforts and attitude?
    Good questions. Early in my career, actually for most of it, I never (my teacher friends as well: some), there were no real difficulties. And yes, I tried multiple methods and lessons to improve their understanding. But I realized something early on. The parents determine motivation at home. In my class, my expectations motivate. But what are the other factors? And why was America number one in the world when I was growing up, when my father was growing up? It wasn’t perfect. But what was working?

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    1. Yes – there tends to be a lot of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ in education. If something hasn’t yielded higher outcomes quickly then it mustn’t be working and needs to change. Whereas in reality, we either need to give things more time or which parts of the approach are working and which may need slight tweaking? It’s an interesting dilemma and changes from school to school depending on the experience of the leadership team (among other things).

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      1. The problem is systemic. It took some time to confuse people with everyone looking for solutions when the answers were always right in front of us, as when we were growing up and education was pretty good, many going onto universities and positivity was the way. Adults were the adults and young people were their to learn from them whether they liked it or not. And parents could always opt for other choices. It’s not that hard. **As I explained to a friend, I can teach falling off a chair. It’s not that I’m special: I’m not. It was when I returned to college and found very simple ways to learn the material, then working at a couple summer camps and seeing how quickly they learned. Very lucky to have had a couple camp supervisors who saw simplicity and encouraged trying anything, believing everyone can. I took this to heart, then found how easy is was to teach. First, you have to believe it’s easy to learn. Second, the teacher must know the subjects well, but then understand how to convey that information to the students so they can see it for themselves. Third, be in charge, but motivate the students, holding them accountable, and find creative ways when better methods and lessons will help. Fourth, never allow negativity. Be a taskmaster. And with quality teachers who know their stuff, responsible and caring, they will get the job done right. And each child will learn something different from each teacher who teaches to their personalities and experiences, but always remembering to be responsible. To me, it’s that simple, and it works every time. We need to remember what worked so well in decades past.

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