Giving choice and voice

Rama Mathew

Rama-Mathew As I start thinking about a good teacher, I realize that there are probably no universally right or wrong attributes or qualities; it basically depends on whether we hold a progressive or a conservative point of view about education. For example, a teacher who believes in maintaining discipline in class so that there is order and silence above everything else, and someone who doesn’t mind a somewhat noisy class where children have some freedom to move around with some purpose are part of the two traditions of educative practice. My standpoint is from a progressive rather than a conservative one and therefore the former won’t qualify as a good teacher.

As I engage in a process of collecting my thoughts together and organizing them into a somewhat cohesive write up, I am persuaded by two or three qualities that I feel are very critical for being a good teacher.

One is the notion of learner autonomy. Simply put, it is learner taking charge of his/her own learning. How does this actually play out in a teaching-learning situation? It can take several forms depending on how autonomous the learner is: expressing their views on what they would like to learn and how they would like to learn; asking questions about what is normally taken for granted, for example, the class arrangement, and who should initiate a discussion, whether they can initiate a dialogue/discussion or have to talk only when asked by the teacher, and so forth. The more advanced learner will go on to making a choice among many alternatives, planning for it and even evaluating if things went well or not. The teacher will have to facilitate this process and enable learners to move along the continuum of less to more autonomy.

I would put the teacher who tries to provide ‘choice’ and ‘voice’ to the learner to have a ‘say’ in the everyday teaching and learning, in the category of a good teacher. The immediate response to this proposal from many teachers might be that they cannot allow this kind of freedom given the prescribed syllabus, textbook, tests and all the other accompanying school-based constraints. I have also heard teachers say that younger children can’t be entrusted with so much freedom because they will get unruly, there will be problems of discipline, and moreover how they don’t know what’s good for them when they are so young. On the other hand teachers of older children feel it’s too late to let them think on their own as they haven’t learnt it when they were young. I can think of examples of how both young and older children can be encouraged to become autonomous gradually regardless of their age and how uninitiated they are to this way of working. See, for example, how a project I was part of demonstrated this:

The other argument in favour of learner autonomy is that unless learners are put on the path of taking responsibility for their own learning, we will be making them dependent on us for life, which is problematic. The ‘spoon-feeding’ metaphor will help us understand this idea. Although we begin by spoon-feeding infants, we gradually encourage them to eat by themselves. If we didn’t do this, we would be doing it the rest of their lives; or they would feel miserable if we didn’t do it.

Teacher as learner: Paulo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of Freedom* puts forward compelling arguments on this. First of all to teach is not to transfer knowledge but to create opportunities or conditions so that learners construct their knowledge. In this process of creating opportunities for learning, the teacher cannot assume the role of a ‘subject’ who is giving shape to the ‘object’, i.e., the learner; both are being formed or reformed in the educative process. Therefore, ‘there is no teaching without learning’… (and) ‘whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.’ In essence, then, teaching is learning and learning is teaching; by corollary, both teacher and learner are simultaneously in the process of learning and teaching. For this to happen, both have to use their creativity: the more we exercise our creative curiosity, the more capable we become of overcoming the negative effects of ‘false teaching’, which is passing on established knowledge. This means both of us will learn to use our critical faculty, i.e., to problematize a given phenomenon.

For some of you this proposition may sound too revolutionary and unacceptable. But if you reflect on it carefully, even the prescribed textbook can be seen to provide an opportunity for both teacher and learner to look at it critically and creatively and to go beyond it. Isn’t this happening in our daily teaching-learning experience to some extent at least? We may not be aware of it or we may not acknowledge it as something of value. Worse still, we may discourage students who question things or detract from the main objective of the lesson which is to complete the syllabus. It may be a good idea to sit back and mull over what transpired in class and why; you may come up with a fresh perspective on the mundane and everyday routine that you may have taken for granted.

Interestingly, when I asked a few of my friends, teachers, teacher educators and learners about what made a good teacher, they came up with similar ideas: A good teacher is one who explores new teaching-learning practices to improve her teaching. In other words, a good teacher is always a good learner.

A good teacher is essentially a committed learner for we teach best when we are learning simultaneously. S/he uses pedagogy that helps unlock the potential learning capacity in the learner. All children have skills and knowledge that they bring with them. A teacher builds on this foundation to help them unlearn and relearn through awakening the sense of critical appreciation. S/he helps the learner to become a fearless explorer.

A teacher is a life-long learner.

In order to create opportunities for learners to construct knowledge, a teacher also creates a friendly environment for experimentation, where there is mutual respect. The teacher will have to understand the meaning of a moment of silence or noise, a smile or a frown, or someone wanting to leave the classroom. According to Freire, ‘Our teaching space is a text that has to be constantly read, interpreted, written and rewritten. In this sense, the more solidarity there is between teacher and student in the way this space is mutually used, the more possibilities for democratic learning will be opened up in the school’. We are here talking about freedom (or autonomy that we discussed earlier) that allows us to think, make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. The challenge for the democratic teacher however is to allow freedom with necessary limits so that students take responsibility for their own decisions.

Teaching is basically a human act. It involves us, humans, who have qualities such as empathy, affection, honesty, love, kindness and so forth in abundance. In fact, students never remember after a few years how well a teacher taught a subject, for example, science or math. They remember on the other hand how kind or ‘nice’ the teacher was to them and what effect it had on them. When I met a set of my third grade students recently after some 40 odd years, I was struck by what they mentioned without my prompting: it was invariably about how each one was treated and how they cherished it even now. Teachers can leave very deep and lasting impressions on students, however young they are. Although I was a bit disappointed that none of my students talked about my language or science teaching, I was secretly happy that they loved the songs I had taught them and still sang them!

Quotes from teacher educators echo what I’m talking about here:
Above all, a good teacher knows that over time, her learners may forget the lessons she taught them, but they will never forget how she treated them, and made them feel.

A good teacher is essentially a humane professional: caring, compassionate, affectionate, loving, friendly and shows genuine concern for her students. These personal aspects are more important than academic aspects/skills that can be acquired through training and within a short duration.

Teacher is like a mother: loving, caring, supportive, sensitive and recognizes her students’ needs.

*Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy and civic courage. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Rama Mathew works with teachers/teacher educators on continuing professional development matters, focusing on language pedagogy and assessment. She can be reached at

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