one for the teachers out there

December 12th, 2008

Here’s an interesting article looking at teacher quality– and how to predict who will be a good teacher, and how much teacher quality affects educational outcome, and much more- using the selection of American college football quarterbacks for NFL positions as a surprisingly effective metaphor and comparison. ‘Surprisingly effective’ because I know almost nothing about that bizarre spectacle Americans call ‘football’. Oh, and the selection of financial advisers, too.

What I found most interesting was the rating of teachers based on how they directly interact with students. A key premise of the article seems to be that no amount of academic achievement will make anybody a good teacher. What makes a teacher good is their ability to engage with the students. That is meeting the students where they are and drawing them personally in to the learning process, getting them personally involved. I have to say I agree.

See, I went to nine different schools- seven primary schools and two high schools- as a kid and I was taught by a huge number of teachers. Some of them were good, some were atrocious, most were mediocre. If we add university into the mix, I can get enough material to give a basic outline of what I consider a good teacher:

One of my university lecturers would enliven classes- including classes on Emile Zola (and enlivening anything involving Zola is a not insubstantial miracle in and of itself)- with such things as tales of his first encounter with tear gas or statements such as “You’ve never lived until you’ve seen your front door fall away from you as you try to insert the key” (meaning he was thoroughly pissed- it wasn’t his front door falling forwards, but him falling backwards). My high school German teacher would liven things up with tales of her time as a diplomat’s wife in Beirut in the middle of Lebanon’s civil war or her more bizarre experiences in small towns in the centre of Germany. All my language teachers, from high school right through university were the same. They’d bring this apparently vague, theoretical stuff down to earth with personal anecdotes that humanised what we were trying to get our heads around. They’d bring these foreign linguistic and literary phenomena alive in middle New Zealand.

My high school physics and English teachers, on the other hand, should have been classified as “Crimes Against Education” by the United Nations and exiled to Campbell Island. My fourth form maths teacher was even worse. Let’s leave the discussion of bad teachers at that.

I model my teaching after my high school and university language teachers. I’ve always done my best to bring the English language to where my students are at and engage with them. It’s not easy. Just ask my wife and she’ll tell you: I contribute the IQ to our family, she provides the EQ. Even so, I do what I can to bring the English language alive into the context of my students and their lives. This week the first lesson in second year writing was all about plagiarism and how to avoid it. I threw in a few references to Guo Jingming and 花儿乐队, partly to get a few laughs, but mostly to bring this abstract concept to life in a context they’re familiar with. Judging by the results of my little follow-up in this week’s second lesson, it may have helped get the message across to one or two students. This semester I’ve also managed to work ‘tofu dregs’ into lessons- using construction as a metaphor for essay writing to show how they need to back up statements with good, strong support. That also raised a few laughs, but hopefully helped to drive my message home.

Am I a good teacher? Hell, no! But having seen so many good teachers bring abstract, foreign concepts into the kind of everyday context I could understand, I work hard on bringing abstract, foreign concepts into the kind of everyday context my students can understand. I have bugger all EQ, but I’ve seen what needs to be done and do what my EQ-free self can to replicate that in my classroom.

3 Responses to “one for the teachers out there”

  1. John Says:

    I’ve never modelled myself on anyone. I get in there and babble. My lectures at Cambridge were a little like stand-up comedy, although without heckling from the audience.

    I admit to being rubbish with high school children – well, the ones I have to deal with. There’s too much disparity between my intellectual level and theirs; too much disparity between my level and range of interest and theirs.

    University students are a different matter, although I’ve never done EFL work at that level. Whether in this area I could work the old magic I had when I was at Manchester, I don’t know.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Maybe you should try university-level EFL. We need new teachers to start at the end of February. Interested?

  3. John Says:

    I would be interested, but I’m no longer quite the free agent I used to be, now, to some extent, being tied to Chengdu.