The 4 things all good teachers do

One of my teaching mentors, Dr. Dennis Huston of Rice, taught me Shakespeare and encouraged me to become an actor. Above all, he inspired me to want to teach and to enjoy it as much as he did. He was named Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation, but more than his excellence, it was his enthusiasm I admired. He described the classroom as a “magical space,” where people could better understand each other and themselves and gain insights which you cannot gain elsewhere. After 17 years of teaching, I have learned how right he was.

Dr. Huston once mentioned, casually, that there were “only four things a teacher really needs to do” and the rest came from practice and experience. I asked him to teach me the four things. It took an hour, after dinner on a Tuesday, and a few of my friends joined us.

The four things:

  1. Have a working knowledge of your subject. Not necessarily world-ranking expertise, just enough to be useful. It makes me think of the Japanese word for teacher, sensei, which just means “one who came before.” You just need to be a few steps ahead on the path, calling out directions over your shoulder as you and your students move forward.
  2. Show that you care about your subject. It’s not enough to show that you know the stuff. You have to inspire passion. You get to inspire passion. It’s a duty and privilege.
    If, as Einstein said, example is not just the best means of teaching, but the only means, then teachers have to set an example of how to have fun. I’ve had dozens of students tell me they weren’t interested in writing at the start of the semester, but when they saw how enthusiastic I was about it, they became curious.
  3. Show that you care whether the students learn the subject or not. I may be an idealist, but I think it’s a missed opportunity when you teach only to the best students and mentally resign the rest to Cs or below. Sadly, our system encourages and even requires creating artificial divides, from Kindergarten through grad school. I believe my job is to get every student doing A work, or at least try my best to do so. (As you can guess, all those As led to rumors I was an easy grader. I’m not.)
    As for professors who say, “I’m a teacher, not an entertainer,” I sympathize but disagree. People learn best when it’s fun. And when you can make it funny, it shows mastery of the subject and the learning process. Humor is just the truth sneaking up on you.I’ve always believed that a classroom that isn’t laughing (and crying and rapt in silence) isn’t learning. My best teachers taught me this by example and I’ve done my best to pass the lesson on.
  4. Care about the students themselves as people. It’s not easy being a student, especially now when many are targets of predatory lending. Some of their challenges are even worse. An estimated 1 in 5 college women will face a sexual assault before graduation. Some will not be believed; some will be talked out of filing charges. I know this because several wrote about it in my classes.
    Your students may suffer from depression, addiction, eating disorders, and the post-traumatic stress of a difficult childhood. They may have stalkers. Even if you can’t help, at least understand why some are asleep or distracted or late. I walked a couple dozen students to the University of Florida counseling center and referred hundreds. I still have the number memorized (352-392-1521).

The trust they place in you often translates into dedication to your class. I had several—too many—students say their only reason for not trying suicide on a Tuesday was because they had my class on Wednesday. And they knew I would miss them. No training can prepare you to be the only reason a student gets out of bed all semester. You just thank God and keep teaching.

Dr. Huston was right about the rest being practice and experience. You find beauty in the basics which you didn’t see at the start of your career.

80% of my writing classes is still rules 16 and 17 of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style: “Use definite, specific, concrete language” and “Omit needless words.” Not only do these basic truths of good writing cultivate and strengthen style, they reflect larger truths of character.

To be specific is to give, as Marge Piercy puts it in “The Art of Blessing the Day”:

attention to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

How lovely a way to treat the world! Adam’s first job, after all, was to give names to each creation in the Garden.

To omit needless words we must make hard and clear decisions about what words we need. I called my first and best-loved course “Writing & Love” because, I said in the description, “Writing and loving are similar disciplines requiring similar decisions.”

To decide what needs to be said can only be done through compassion. To see each other well, to decide what is important to notice and what just gets in the way, requires a sure and well-guided eye and hand.

In the end, good writing is a promise to tell the truth as well as you can and with compassion, and the keeping of that promise. The promise leads to the beauty and power inherent in the language, which only attention can reveal.

Good English prose consists of sentences of varying length, with pleasing rhythm and melody, using short words drawn mostly from the Anglo-Saxon, with Latinate and French words for seasoning. The Gettysburg Address is a model, beautiful and powerful. It shows Lincoln’s compassion for his people, and love for the act of writing to them. It shows his attention to detail in choosing those 272 words and omitting any others.

Other subjects have their power and beauty. Chemistry is a dance between positive and negative charges. Even the language of chemistry is love poetry. Molecules are water-loving (hydrophilic) or water-avoiding (hydrophobic). A galvanic cell is a tale of unrequited love. (Really, it is.)

Architects don’t design structures, they design spaces of potential, waiting to be filled with life. So do all teachers who believe in Dr. Huston’s “magical space” of the classroom.

In all of these is the magic of attention, from the French attendre, to wait. To wait for something is an act of faith: you believe something is going to come. What that is depends on what you ask for. Bad teachers, teachers who have given up, expect only disappointment and drudgery. And so they find it.

A good teacher expects, even demands, something else. She attends, waiting for the burnt-out and unconfident student to show the merest kindling of genius. She feeds that ember into flame enough to shed light. She holds it up before the student’s glowing, half-believing eyes and says, “See? That’s you.” As Marge Piercy wrote and my mentors taught me, “Attention is love.”

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