Benevolence alone will not make a teacher, nor will learning alone do it. The gift of teaching is a peculiar talent, and implies a need and a craving in the teacher himself. – John Jay Chapman
A good teacher is hard to define but easy to recognize. Each of us probably has fond memories of teachers who inspired as well as informed. I can remember several from my own school days. Mrs P – a firm, affectionate, matronly teacher – who eased me into nursery school, taught me cursive writing and how to get along with other four year olds. Mrs R, serious and strict, who encouraged endless questions, lent me books to read and sparked off a love for science when I was nine. Mrs S in high school, brisk and bubbly with her eccentric hairstyles, who made maths classes buzz. Each of these teachers had very different personalities and teaching styles, yet each left a deep impression on me.
Decades later, as a teacher myself, I have wondered about the qualities and skills that make a good teacher. Is it deep subject knowledge? Or experience in managing a class? Is it in having a good relationship with students? Or in the way a lesson is organized? And can one learn these attitudes and skills?
Three levels of good teaching
After observing many teachers I have realized that there are many ways to be a good teacher. Yet, I have noticed that all teachers function at three levels which I will call ‘Doing’, ‘Knowing’ and ‘Being’. And good teachers are constantly learning and developing on all three levels.
Doing – the practical level
The practical level, or the craft of teaching, is the most tangible level of teacher preparation. It is the level most often discussed in staffrooms and teacher training programmes. It includes aspects like classroom management, pedagogical strategies for teaching a subject, lesson planning and assessment. A good teacher has a repertoire of strategies which she uses flexibly and creatively for effective teaching.
A high school teacher who makes students think about the concept of democracy through discussions or role plays, a Montessori teacher who creates an attractive classroom environment for the three year old, a middle school teacher who uses engaging games to assess students are all examples of the craft of teaching. Good teachers seem to have an implicit grasp of ‘what works’ with their students.
Knowing – the intellectual level
I will refer to the next level of teacher preparation as the ‘intellectual’ level. A good teacher is intellectually curious and is constantly deepening her knowledge. Students are quick to spot a teacher who ‘knows’ her subject well. While every good teacher may not be an expert in the subject she teaches, subject matter knowledge is essential to good teaching. It helps a teacher to organize teaching more effectively, to respond to students’ questions and to convey a deeper understanding of the subject. For example, a teacher with a good and up-to-date knowledge of chemistry is able to organize interesting and relevant projects for her students. A teacher with a good understanding of history can help students go beyond the textbook and relate history to their own contexts.
Kavita Krishna is an engineer turned science and math educator with over 15 years of experience in teaching, curriculum development, and teacher education. She can be reached at email@example.com.