Let’s cook up the perfect teacher!

Sudharani Uppala

Sudharani In a family with three children, dinner time conversations can range from fun, interesting and happy to the occasional bickering and sniping. However, the conversations my husband and I cherish are the ones where the children talk about school. There are teachers who are nothing short of heroes or even demigods in our family. They are talked about frequently. Conversations at dinner revolve around what Ms. X or Mr. Z said that day. Their words are golden. Watching my children develop this beautiful relationship of trust, respect and learning with their teachers is wonderful. But it also provokes the thought – what really makes a teacher?

As a mother of three children, a volunteer teacher and a perpetual student who loves learning, teachers have a constant presence in my life. I remember some of my teachers with great fondness and respect for their role in my education. There are others who are remembered because my memories of their classes are of frustration and unhappiness. As a parent, I now see this playing out in the lives of my children too.

A favourite beginning-of-the-year exercise that some teachers use in the elementary classrooms where I volunteer is “Recipe of Me”. The children draw a picture of themselves and write what characteristics make them unique and in what proportions. One may say “50 spoons of joy, 20 spoons of mischief and 10 spoons of kindness”. Another may say “a pinch of mischief, a spoon of niceness, and a cup of happiness.” I love reading the children’s perception of themselves.

As I think of Teacher’s Day and of all the teachers who have played a part in my life and my children’s, this “Recipe of Me” exercise comes to mind. What makes some teachers so memorable and impactful? Why does that student-teacher connect not work sometimes? What are those unique ingredients that make a teacher?

All the wonderful teachers I have encountered seem to share some traits. Passion, care, compassion, connection with students, creativity, consistency and competence all seem like essential ingredients.

As a parent, it is beautiful to watch when my child, who is struggling in a certain subject, encounters a teacher who can motivate students to reach beyond their easy grasp. Many children are often keenly aware of their weaknesses and are sensitive. A good teacher helps the child realize their strengths and encourages and challenges the student to learn using those strengths. It is in the day-to-day process of reaching this goal that the ingredients for making a good teacher come into play.

The best teachers are the ones who teach the “whole” child. Their goal is making the learning itself rewarding and enjoyable. Their vision of education is not limited to report cards and test scores but encompasses daily doses of compassion, flexibility, communication, humor and imagination. Most importantly, a good teacher is someone who uses both head and heart in equal measure throughout the school day. Compassion lies in understanding that a student may be frustrated, angry or just unable to focus on the academics at hand. A little extra attention, a hug, and asking how they are feeling that day is all it takes to turn a potentially negative situation into a positive, personal learning experience for the child.

Consistency is repeatedly cited as an important aspect of parenting. A classroom too benefits from a teacher who is consistent with regard to goals, expectations and discipline. Bad days happen to everyone. Teachers who deal with misbehaviour with fairness and consistency, and then move on seem to get the best out of their class. Children are acutely sensitive to ‘unfairness” and knowing that all are equal in the teacher’s eyes can make the acceptance of class rules easier.

Flexibility in a teacher allows the learning environment to be fluid and creative. Teachers who are positive are ready to adapt to students’ moods and needs. Some days, students may focus better if they play a game with the information or talk about something else that is important to them at that moment. I feel that a willingness to take a different path while sticking to learning goals engages the children better.

As a parent, I value teachers who keep us informed about what goes on in the classroom. Communicating with the student and his parents on a regular basis lets parents get more involved in their children’s educational process. To wait for parent conferences as the only opportunity for communication means that behaviours and issues that should be nipped in the bud are allowed to grow. Good communication allows parents and teachers to function as a team and help the child.

On multiple occasions I have encountered teachers who are unwilling to hear parent concerns about their child. A good teacher should not be threatened by parent advocacy. When families or a student have health or emotional issues that are affecting education and discipline, having open and compassionate teachers can make a great difference to the student’s performance. Our family had personal experience with a long and draining health battle and having an understanding teacher meant that we had a wonderful ally when our child was at school.

We have a range of learning styles in our family. We have one who is super organized and stays on top of school work most times. However, confidence is an issue. The years when the teacher gently but surely pushed the student and raised the learning bar, we saw great progress in skills and confidence. Another child is a perfectionist and will not try anything unless there is guaranteed success (an oxymoron, for sure!) This child has benefited the most from teachers who have a great sense of humor. They break down this child’s fears and resistance with their humor. To laugh at yourself and be free to admit mistakes is a difficult lesson for anyone. But when teachers bring humor into the classroom, the students learn to relax and be more receptive to trying new things.

Today’s children – at least the more privileged ones – have access to a great deal of information. What they lack is discernment. Teachers are not their only source of information or expertise as in the old days. What are needed in today’s schools are teachers who are willing to try new approaches for delivering the information. Unconventional methods may just be the ticket for helping students pay attention or process information. Teachers today have to be facilitators of learning.

I had the good fortune to be taught by teachers who inspired me and I see them in my children’s schools as well as in the school where I volunteer. A teacher who has the passion to help students succeed and can achieve this with humor, consistency and compassion can inspire students. These are the teachers who make their students want to do their best and succeed. These are teachers who make students rush to school with an eagerness to learn and achieve.

As summer ends, our family shakes off the long, leisurely days of vacation and gets ready for another year of learning and growing. There is always the anticipation of who the teachers will be and what exciting things are going to happen. Each new year, my husband and I hope to hear our children share their school stories and of the wonderful teachers who come back to school, year after year, and share their passion for learning with the students.

Sudharani is a mother of 3, an avid reader and likes to sketch, cook and travel. Over the years, she has worked as a sub-editor, a technical writer, teacher’s assistant and a volunteer literacy tutor. Her most recent role has been that of a volunteer Reading Tutor as a member of Americorps. She works with individual elementary students who have reading issues. She can be reached at sudha_uppala@hotmail.com.

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