A Good Teacher or Good Teaching?

In looking back at the characteristics of good teachers, I find it difficult to move away from the reality that all my teachers had reputations that preceded them. This is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable aspects of being a teacher : the students know exactly who is a good teacher and debate it among themselves. Well, in any event, this is what we did and I doubt whether we were or are unusual in that respect. Comments like: “So and so is a complete ***** but really knows her stuff” echo from yesteryear.

It might perhaps be more helpful, in fact, to move away from reputations and do, as Alex Moore suggests, and consider, not so much good teachers but, good teaching. Now when I ask myself where I experienced good teaching it was not actually at school or university, where teaching was based on a very traditional didactic approach. In fact it was when I signed up for a teaching English as a second language certificate,(‘TESOL’).

The ‘introductory’ task was to prepare a short instructional lesson during which we would try to teach our peers how to do something simple. I chose how to tie a bow-line knot, but no sooner had I started planning than I realised the complexity of what I was trying to do. This made me reflect and in doing so I found a a logical beginning and then stripped the task into parts. On the day, it worked well but it only did so because I had planned, prepared and reflected on what I was trying to do. As a group we then critiqued each others’ instructional activities, highlighting strengths and weaknesses. This process was critical to our learning about the absolute necessity for planning and splitting activities into steps. The highlight of this aspect of the teaching was that it was essentially peer driven, based on practical experience and observation.

Next, we were put in the position of being language learners ourselves and spent a month learning an unknown foreign language. In our case it was Farsi. First class, in came the instructor who started explaining in Farsi what her name was : ‘Meera nam Ashtar hai’, if I recall correctly, and she supported her statements with hand gestures. She quickly had us repeating the phrase using our own names and then she introduced the question to elicit the answer; almost immediately we were working in pairs asking and answering the question: “What is your name?” using the target language with absolutely no English being used.

Next class the instructor used a a map of the world and an inflatable globe and she started to build on the intial learning by introducing herself and explaining what country she came from, pointing to the map to indicate the country. She then threw the globe to individual students who had to choose a country at random, introduce themselves and say where they came from. Once more we were put into pairs and small groups to practise the target language. The whole course continued in a similar manner.

This remains the best teaching I have ever experienced. It worked in part because the instructors knew exactly what they were trying to do at each stage of every lesson. It was also practical and involved much peer review. An additional benefit was that everyone was there for their own positive reasons as opposed to being compelled, which latter is the case in much formal education. More than anything else it really demonstrated how learners could learn a language from scratch, with absolutely no requirement to use another language for instructional purposes.

I would argue that this expierience shows how important it is for teachers to have a strong foundation in their subject matter and the how to of teaching. I do not believe, however, that it ends there. Teachers also need to bring strong personal qualities into classrooms to support these general skills and knowledge. Then I think we can start talking about a good teacher.

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