My next set of classes starts on Monday, August 24. However, I emailed my students their first assignment back on April 28. I did not want them to waste their summer. More importantly, I wanted to start having a positive influence on them as soon as possible. The assignment had several parts culminating in their writing a short essay on the characteristics of a great student. I just wanted them to think about what that meant. I’ll write more about the results of that assignment during the fall when I see whether it had any impact on the students.
Today, though, I want to give you an assignment to complete before your fall semester begins. When I put on teaching presentations, I often begin by instructing my audience to do the following exercise. Standing in front of all those teachers, I ask every person to close their eyes. (I always warn them that they cannot fall asleep.)
“I want you to think through your years in school—start with kindergarten and go all the way through high school and college. Think about all those dozens of teachers and pick the one teacher who had the most positive influence on your life. It could be a fifth grade reading teacher or a high school biology teacher. It could be a college math teacher or your kindergarten teacher. Think about all those teachers and pick the one who stands out to you as having the most positive influence. I find most people can settle on one great teacher fairly quickly.
“Now, I want you to identify the three characteristics that stand out in your mind about this person. If you had to describe this teacher by his or her characteristics, what would you say? Was the person kind, gentle, mean, depressed, etc.? This teacher certainly stood out in your life—what enabled them to be such a force in your life? What made this teacher great?
“Teachers often tell me they are not sure what characteristics lead to great teaching. That is absolute baloney. You have just identified the three characteristics that, for you, are basic to great teaching. And you probably did it without too much problem. This is a simple exercise to help you identify the characteristics you believe lead to great teaching.
“Our goal here today is to help you move closer to becoming a great teacher. So, take the three characteristics that you just identified. Think about your own teaching. For each of these three, award yourself a grade: A, B, C, D, F. How well are you doing? For example, if you felt that the great teacher in your life became great by being sweet, then how would you grade your own teaching when it comes to being sweet?
“To become great, you have to work on getting better. That is just common sense. Take the three grades you just gave yourself. Unless you awarded yourself three A’s (which probably means you are an incredibly easy grader), what can you do over the next 12 months to move those grades higher? That is the key. How can you improve over the next 12 months. For me, that is the secret to improving as a teacher. Find the standard you want, measure yourself honestly, consider how to make improvements. And, then, go do it.”
Next, in these teaching presentations, I have the members of the group open their eyes and we discuss their great teachers and the characteristics that made them great. Listening to everyone talk about these teachers is a wonderful experience. Try it in your next faculty meeting. I am a big believer that the mere act of talking about great teachers will help you become a better teacher.
Therefore, I want to finish up this blog posting today by talking about a great teacher. Interestingly enough, this is a teacher that I never had and probably never spoke with in my life. But I am convinced that she was great.
I grew up in the 1950s in a small blue-collar furniture town of about 1,000 in the hills of North Carolina. My high school graduating class was roughly 100 and, as I remember it, 25 percent of the graduates were married and about 10 percent already had children. It was a fabulous place to grow up with wonderful people but it was not the most cosmopolitan place on the planet.
However, our high school band was fabulous. The band seemed to have a consistent excellence that really went beyond the place and size of the school. I have no musically ability at all so I had no idea how that consistency was maintained. The band director was Kathryn Siphers. I did not know her at all but she seemed to be a quiet and serious person—one who appeared able to coax the best out of those high school musicians year after year. In hindsight, I wish I could have set in the room and watched her lead and guide those young people to get such great results. It must have been a fabulous example of great teaching. I think I would have learned a lot.
She died at the age of 62 in 1986. That is a long time ago. My little home town now has a Facebook page and it is amazing to me, how many times former students bring her name up and talk about her in glowing terms. Just today, one person wrote about her: “I think I cried harder at her funeral than any other one I have ever been to” and another person responded “Her influence was unlimited.” After nearly three decades, people talk about her as a very real presence in their lives. Ms. Siphers truly meets my definition as a great teacher. Even after 44 years in this job, that is still a goal I am working towards.
When she died, a colleague wrote about her in the local newspaper. I think this will tell you more about what it means to be a great teacher than anything I can think of to say.
“Ms. Siphers was more than a band director. She was a teacher’s teacher. In her philosophy on teaching, she wrote, ‘Teaching is my life. I have been given one talent to use. This talent has made it possible for me to teach many children music. I believe in music as an exalter of the human spirit, as a life-giving force in education. My challenge is to lead students into genuine and permanent love and understanding of beautiful music. I believe if a teacher is to be successful, one must grow as one works. One must be enthusiastic and untiring in efforts to get the work done. Constant planning, working, evaluating, examining of materials and teaching procedures must be made. For me, teaching is exciting. It is an obsession, but a magnificent obsession.’”
There is nothing I could possibly add to those sentiments.