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teacherIt is a shocking reality that the vast majority of “teachers” have no idea what it means to be an “educated” human being. If this is true, and indeed it is demonstrable, then it should not be a surprise to learn that most Americans have no idea what it means to be a good teacher. Ask the question, “Have you had any good teachers?” and people will invariably answer, “Yes, I have had a few.” If we continue the line of questioning and ask, “What made them good teachers?” we will likely get a wide range of answers, but it is unlikely that the various answers will collectively end in painting an accurate portrait of the truly good teacher.

Valerie Strauss, a writer on education at The Washington Post, presents a list of five questions she asserts will help one discern whether or not he is a bad teacher. It is fair to assume that Ms. Strauss considers these five attributes to be the five most important attributes of a good teacher. She asks: 1. Do you like children? 2. Do you find the subject matter dull? 3. Do you know what you are talking about? 4. Do you ignore a large subset of your students? And 5. Are you totally disengaged?

Is it possible that these five considerations comprise the ingredients of a good teacher? Or is Valerie Strauss–even though she considers herself an authority on the subject of education–just one of a vast majority in America who has no idea what makes a good teacher?

Ms. Strauss’ first question seems to be a no brainer. Do you like children? Who does not like children? Who has gone into teaching who does not like children? The question alone reduces a very important consideration to a personal preference. Strauss claims that the bad teachers she knows do not like children. Have you been in a public school classroom lately? There is a huge difference between liking children and observing the maddening behavior allowed and at times encouraged in the public schools. That the majority of school teachers have been flexible enough to normalize such terrible behavior is what ought to concern us. Any reasonable, normal human person would be shocked by the decline in student behavior, and the better teacher would not stand for it, thus giving the appearance of not liking the children.

The real question should have been, “Do you know who is sitting in those desks in front of you?” The answer is a multitude of little images of God, all of whom are incalculably valuable and intrinsically lovable human beings. They possess a tripartite human soul consisting of appetites, intellect, and will. If we remarry the fact/value distinction, we will easily see that these truths call for specific and intentional considerations if human learning is going to transpire. It ought to appeal to common sense that if a teacher does not recognize the human souls in front of him for who they truly are, then he cannot possibly teach them well because he will not know how humans truly learn.

It really does not matter if a teacher likes his students or not. A doctor is not required to like his patients to be a good doctor, but he must understand the human physiology, the nature of human healing and be wise enough to follow a course of action that will lead to the best possible healthy end. A lawyer does not need to like his clients to be a good lawyer; he must understand the nature of law and justice and be able to articulate  effectively the best course of legal action for his client.

The notion that a teacher must like his students is as upside-down as nearly every aspect of modern education. The false assumption that a teacher must “like” his students implies an instrumentality that will lead to good teaching. It will not because liking someone ought not to be viewed as instrumental. It is possible for the good teacher to like his students as a fruit from an orchard that both teacher and student helped to cultivate. It does not make any sense to suggest that a teacher is obligated to like a classroom full of irreverent and entitled students who care nothing for the teacher and what he is trying to do. To like a student implies a properly ordered relationship between teacher and student, not a strategy to become a good teacher. The modern public classroom is anything but a properly-ordered learning environment. The good teacher will be liked and like his students partly because it is not a consideration, but an artifact of good teaching.

Ms. Strauss then suggests that if one finds the subject matter dull, then perhaps they are a bad teacher. There is no good teacher who would not be horrified by the anti-human and anti-intellectual subject matter being ideologically propagated in the public schools. What passes for curriculum in standards-based learning epitomizes and inculcates boredom. Ms. Strauss would advance the myth that teachers are like salesmen and that if they are enthusiastic about what they are teaching, the children will learn. The real question about the subject matter does not revolve around the enthusiasm of the teacher, but whether or not it is good, true, and beautiful. In the public schools it is not, so if a teacher is enthusiastic about the terrible subject matter of the modern school, that would not be the sign of a good teacher but an ignorant one. Enthusiasm is a fruit of the good teacher, not the root.

Ms. Strauss’ third concern is that teachers know what they are talking about, an attribute devoutly to be wished. To be truly knowledgeable is one of the keys to being a good teacher, but if the subject matter in the public schools itself is not authoritative in any sense, which it is not, then what would a teacher who “knows what they are talking about” look like? A knowledgeable teacher would rail against the current pedagogies, methodologies, and content of the modern school. If the good teacher really knows what he is talking about, then in the public schools he would likely be fired.

Ms. Strauss goes on to suggest that a teacher who ignores a large subset of his students most of the time would be a bad teacher. I would suggest that after the good teacher brings a proper curriculum to his students, then they must make the effort to not be ignorable. If you spend time in a public classroom you will learn that students are now very adept at becoming ignorable through creative tactics that make them appear engaged while actually being disengaged. Instead of coming up with endless tricks to engage all students, such as dog clickers and flashy gimmicks, the good teacher would better serve his students if he discovers why students are so disengaged in the public schools in the first place.

John Henry Newman explains in The Idea of the University that students are to expend a great deal of effort to relate all the facts they learn into a “unified and organic whole and to assimilate them as the body assimilates food.” Newman suggests that by mental eyes and hooks a student must sew learned facts together into a seamless garment of integrated knowledge. This would be impossible today because modern learning is like trying to deposit a bucket of disparate facts that bear no real relationship to one another into unwilling receptacles, so authentic learning does not take place. It may be more appropriate than Ms. Strauss understands for teacher and student alike to ignore one another.

Finally, Ms. Strauss suggest that if a teacher is totally disengaged he is a bad teacher. I suppose that anyone disengaged and burned-out is going to do a poor job. If you ever do meet a good teacher you may learn from him that authentic teaching and learning is not a thing that leads to burn out. Modern public-school teaching is a thing that leads to burn-out for teacher and student alike. I know of third graders who have had it with the public schools, and I know countless teachers who are shock-worn and burned-out. Visit a public school and you will likely witness multitudes of burned out students and teachers, a state of affairs that requires attention.

Ms. Strauss’ five questions are nearly useless in discerning whether or not one is a bad teacher, but she asks a good question by asking, “Are you a bad teacher?” This may draw us to the even better question: “What is a good teacher?” Who knows the answer to this vitally important question? So materialistic are our times, one is likely to believe a good teacher is one who demonstrates the ability to convey and test vast amounts of information. This would demonstrate a reduction of education to transitive considerations, cut off from the good, the true, and the beautiful. The good teacher understands that teaching is an art of intransitive considerations requiring subject material to be good, true, and beautiful.

Millions of Americans turn their children over to the public schools because we have been assured that they will return them to us educated. How is this supposed to happen when it seems no one in the public schools knows what an education is, much less what it takes to be a good teacher? Are there good teachers in the public schools? It does not much matter when programmatically, the public school agenda is far removed from any real considerations of an authentic education. Ask around to find out if anyone knows what makes a good teacher. Ask at the public schools and perhaps the superintendent’s office. The answers may surprise you because it seems that no one really knows anymore. Are you a good teacher?

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Published: Jan 20, 2015
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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7 replies to this post
  1. Steven Jonathan, you have certainly nailed Ms. Strauss to the public schoolroom wall. I have to say, though, that I am now in my 53rd year of trying to figure out how to describe the Good Teacher. Take the point about “liking” one’s students. I have always liked my students–but then, I tend to like most people–and have generally found that teachers who don’t like their students are lousy teachers. Even then it is sometimes very hard to tell whether grumpy, sarcastic, aloof, flat-out mean teachers really don’t like their students or have put on a mask, which never quite hides the love that is behind it. Lois Pike frightened the hell out of me–I mean literally, because it turned out that she wanted me to be a good boy. Most teachers who seem to dislike their students, however, really dislike their students; and I would say the same about physicians and lawyers. There is room for caritas, is there not? I’m pretty sure you would agree with me on this, based on all the fine essays you write for TIC, but there are indeed places to start in talking about my favorite profession.

  2. John, it is a certainty that there is a place for caritas in teaching, doctoring, lawyering and all other professions- the problem with the public school ideology is that it is a “liking” seen as instrumental, rather than organic. It is certainly true that teachers who do not like their students are likely to be lousy teachers, but I don’t think it is because they don’t like students that they are lousy, but that not liking students is an artifact of a syndrome of problems with modern schooling and perhaps the fruit of an ill suited person taking on teaching. The kind of like required is not like at all, but as you put it caritas- charity, that sacrifice that follows the recognition that the souls in front of you are imago Dei and incalculably worthy of being taken seriously even though that may cost us. The finest teachers love their students in the right way. To actually like students is a fruit of a good relationship, to have caritas for students is a gift belonging to the finest teachers. God bless you John and the work you do, I suspect you have always had that rightly ordered love for your students.

  3. Maybe part of the problem is that most schools are basically Education Factories (or “Institutional Learning Facilities” as the rock group Suicidal Tendencies put it), indeed, they even *look* like factories (or prisons) from both the outside and the inside. The educational establishment, to the student anyway, seems like an industrial process designed to turn out a uniform froduct the way other industries turn out cans of meat.

  4. PS: The above was not meant as a shot at individual teachers (such as the author of this article) but rather the education bureaucracy, which seems to be the same everywhere. My own school experience from grades 1 – 12 largely reflects what I wrote above, and that spans private, public, and Catholic schools in two countries and three cities. With one very notable exception, which was a very small private school in England that covered ages 5 through 8. To this day, my parents still talk about how delighful that school was and how fortunate they were to find it, especially since we had just moved to England from the US. While I have forgotten most of the specifics of what was taught there, I still very much recall an atmoshpere at that school that could be best described as truly humane – there was zero bullying and rarely any rudeness. The kids felt *valued*, and not just numbers on some bureaucrat’s organizational chart. More schools along this model could do wonders, especially in producing better *people* instead of graduates who simply know more stuff.

  5. Eric, it is exactly the problem, the scientific reduction of education to an algorithm that reduces the human person to a bag of molecules- and they churn out cans of self-esteem soup. The natural result is that the schools devolve into prisons, or soul death camps. Because names no longer mean anything, a captive of this terrible system is called a student and a prison guard is called a teacher, and the best advice the warden has to give the guards is “fake it till you make it.” Like the students, love the curriculum, know the party line, don’t ignore the inmates or you can’t control them and don’t get burned out. Even though I have been a teacher for 24 years, I have never fully taken part in this charade, which made me popular with students, but unpopular with wardens. I wonder at what point we as prison guards have to take account of what is happening in the “beloved” public schools when we honestly have no idea what we are doing.

  6. I don’t know if you will see this, but I had to respond. I am a public school teacher, and I am a good one. Ignoring the Core Curriculum and the Standards unless I am being evaluated, I otherwise teach classic texts from the cannon. I have actually be told by an expert on Core that it does not matter what I teach, in terms of content, I mean, I could as easily teach Love’s Labor’s Lost as to teach Macbeth. I argued for hierarchy in the teaching of Shakespeare’s plays, saying that there were plays which one should learn first before learning others. I was told to quit harping on content and to focus on skill, the skills inherent in the standards. When I suggested that Macbeth offered content that was culturally valuable to own, I was labeled a reactionary and sent to reeducation camp in the form of an extra training session on standards based education. I have since learned to keep my own council and to erect a Potemkin village (I’m certain that I am the only teacher in my school who knows what that is, including my colleagues in the history department, who are regularly held up to me as paragons of Standards based educators) of Standards based ephemera as a smoke screen to keep the Core hooligans at bay!

  7. Coopermischa, You are a teacher after my own heart. I spent my time in the public schools doing similar things as you- but I know so profoundly that to do good in the public schools is a little like trying to speak reasonably to inmates in an asylum. If one were to use great classics with the Common Core or any other set of bankrupt standards, it would only ruin the classics, certainly it would not redeem the standards. The schools are bankrupt to the core- there is no possibility of remediation or improvement. Keep up the good work, I bet your students love you.

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