Who doesn't remember that one teacher who had a real positive affect on our lives. It could have been a kindergarten teacher, a high school history teacher, a college professor or, yes, even a tennis coach. Some taught us through humor, some kept us awake with smoke and mirrors, others wowed us with their brilliance, but their unmistakable focus was always on us … our learning, growth and our achievement. Seemingly, these great teachers were all different. They did, however, have many common traits. Let's look at some of them.
It’s not about me or you, it's about them
The best teachers I have ever had cared about if I understood what they were talking about. They gave constant feedback. They wouldn't stop until they were absolutely certain that we left the class or lesson knowing more than we did when we walked in. One of my finest teachers and coaches was my college coach and mentor. Having seen him many years after he retired, I asked him, “How can I ever thank you for everything you did for me?” He smiled and said, “Your success is my reward.”
Life isn't fair, but your classroom better be
We teach more than the subjects we teach. In our interactions, words, decisions and attitudes, we are teaching the “other” subjects. Behavior, open-minded fairness, critical inquiry and transparency of process (have we heard that before?) are but a few things our students learn in our classroom. The carefully consistent practice of fairness with our students increases the chances that they will model that behavior with their peers. Scrupulous attentiveness to equity should be a constant in every classroom.
Sometimes you need to jump in
An Olympic diver was once asked after performing a very difficult dive, “What was the hardest part?” Without hesitation, he answered, “Jumping off the board.” Students know when you’re playing it safe. They sense when you “mail it in.” They also know when you are in the present and engaged, when you are willing to take risks, take on the unconventional. I believe there is an element of courage in the finest of teachings. A required particle of risk that creates unease, but ultimately leads to arriving at our goal in one piece. There needs to be a nervousness, a gut reaction that if we want to do well, we will have to take risks, take that running leap and hopefully, as we have so often, land on our feet. This sense of risk is always accompanied by our memories of past failures and belly-flops, but once in the air, we can fly. It’s our courage that enables our flight.
I was doing fine until someone interrupted
I have a love/hate relationship with lesson plans. Without planning, we can lose our way, forget an important point or fail to cover some detail or aspect of our teaching. On the other hand, however, too much planning obscures the spontaneity and discovery that truly characterizes the learning process. By ignoring a student's sudden insight is to stifle true learning. While taking your hands off the steering wheel is bad in a car, its not necessarily bad pedagogy. Allowing students to take the lead requires practice in facilitating. It may be more work for us teachers, but our students learn better when they are actively involved in its discovery. Indeed, students may forget much of the subject matter we teach them, but we can be sure they will never forget the excitement of learning.
Do as I do and what I say
While this seems most obvious, students will echo your actions, words and attitudes. A lesson led by an engaged diligent teacher will strangely be full of engaged and diligent students. The best teachers understand that the behavior they themselves are engaged sets the tone for the learning experience of their students. Our civil (or uncivil) behavior reverberates everywhere. The ways in which we treat our colleagues and parents, all have a profound impact on how we are perceived.
There is no set path for becoming an effective teacher. It all comes down to the key elements: Caring for and about our students as both human beings and learners, having the necessary expertise and skills, demonstrating our commitment to fairness, emphasizing the process of active learning, being generous with our time and practicing respectful behavior. These elements come in different forms and can be delivered in many different ways. It’s up to each of us to best deliver the message. There is nothing to stop anyone from becoming an effective teacher. It is our individuality and eccentricity that enable us to reach out, connect and inspire. If you are a teacher, the power to change lives is within your grasp. You already have it. What a great opportunity.
<p><span class="Apple-style-span" style="line-height: normal; ">Edward Wolfarth is the tennis director at the Tam O' Shanter Club in Brookville, N.Y. He is also a professor of physical education and sports sciences at Hofstra University. In addition to his class load, Edward finds time to coach high school tennis at Jericho High School. He’s an active member of the United States Professional Tennis Association and currently serves on the executive board of the United States Tennis Association-Long Island Region. He still plays competitively and is a highly ranked senior player. He may be reached at (516) 626-9005 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.</span></p>