Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | September 12, 2012

Good Teachers and How to Know One

     Sister Myra Paul, all four feet eleven inches of her, stepped in from the hall, turned to close the door, and walked to the front of the room. Without notes, without reading from a text, she began to talk. “Once upon a time, almost ten thousand years ago,” she said, “in a land known as Mesopotamia, lived a tribe of people.” That day was Tuesday, September 5th, 1961, and Edie Petrello and her two closest friends, Evelyn and Kathy, along with thirty-seven other sophomore girls began to write in their notebooks. Sister, who taught World History at St. Brendan’s High School in Brooklyn, New York, went on with her story. Edie stopped writing in her notebook. The story was too good to look away from.

     When the bell rang again, Sister stopped talking. No one looked away. No one moved. “Well, she said, “I will just have tell you about Gilgamesh tomorrow.” With that, she bid them good day and stepped back into the hall.

     In May of 1962, Edie, Evelyn, and Kathy gathered in the library to begin to review for their Regents Exam in World History. They took out their notebooks. There on the first page of her notebook, Edie found the paragraph of notes she had taken on September 5th, and not much else. While I cannot tell you how Evelyn and Kathy did on their exams, I can tell you that Edie scored 95%. Sister Myra Paul had captivated, intrigued, engaged, and fascinated her forty students with what Edie still remembers as the Story of World History, of which Edie learned apparently a great deal.

     Sister Myra Paul embodied the qualities, inherent and explicit, in the responses I received to the question: What is the most significant indicator of a good teacher? Recall that those who sent me their answers are educators, both teachers and administrators, parents, grandparents, performance and graphic artists, politicians, judges and lawyers, broadcasters, business men and women, and medical professionals. Here is the distillation of what they offered:

§ The teacher’s humanity. Yes, content knowledge and intelligence are crucial; (however,) when I think of many memorable moments in teaching, they were about my ability to read students’ needs..

§ …the good ones I remember excited us…they knew their fields, lectured with confidence, demanded top effort…being well liked was surprisingly low on my list of a good teacher….the ones from whom I really learned something were demanding…and generous in their praise…

§ There really isn’t one perfect indicator of a good teacher… One way is to listen to what students and parents say… For example, there was a teacher named Mr. Hook whom all the students and parents loved. And everyone was well aware of this..

§ Confident students

§ A good teacher should never ever for one minute be boring.

§ One whose students learn English, Math, Science and History.

§ The ability to cause students to want to learn more.

§ That students are fully engaged in meaningful learning.

§ Patience. Encouragement. Listening… Looking for the best in students. One of the greatest obstacles to true learning today is that many children don’t want to be (in school); they end up becoming a nightmare for teachers who want to teach and the students who want to learn.

§ If a teacher is respected by his/her students, they can then be inspired to learn.  And the teacher has to want success for students…There are many teachers who just go through the motions. 

§ One who knows how to motivate students.

§ As far as good teacher bad teacher: my two sons had as little talent playing baseball as I did.  My eldest son’s coach said to him, “I’m going to make a 300 hitter out of you.”  And he did, and the team went on to win its division. My youngest son’s coach told me, “Your son is out of his league, and he is off the team.”…That same kind of attitude exists in the classroom.  Good teacher works, bad teacher doesn’t.  One of the teachers I most admired was Fr. Phillip Kellett, SJ.  He would say, “All I want on my tombstone is ‘He Worked.’”

§ That the teacher loves her subject area, as well as learning in general, and does her very best to impart that love on to her students in a supportive, engaging atmosphere — in-class and out.

§ One quality (talented teachers) all seem to share is passion…for their subject, for learning, for teaching, for students…they exude it. 

§ Passion for the content, a keen desire to learn and to help others learn, the ability to communicate both their passion and content to others.

     To return to Edie for just a moment, a year later she and her friends took U.S. History. She does not recall the teacher’s name. What she recalls about that course is memorizing lists of names and dates. She will tell you that what she truly knows today of American History she learned anywhere other than that class.

     We all – I hope –had one or more teachers like Sister Myra Paul during our student lives. I suppose an argument could thereby be made for student evaluations of teachers. Who better to know firsthand whether or not a teacher has helped a student’s progress toward becoming someone who thinks well? The problem in that is no matter what, until approximately the age of twenty-four, the human brain has not fully developed, so relying on Sophomore Sally Go-getter’s appraisal of her teachers has a built-in catch that only time can erase. In addition, teenagers, through no fault of their own, are what they are, so for every honest, accurate, and fair student assessment of a teacher, there would certainly be at least one dishonest, inaccurate, ego-centric assessment as well. Take a random sampling of twenty-five high school students, give them a choice of answering true or false to the statement: “I like school.” Do you think the majority of those twenty-five would answer True?

     The answer above that speaks of Mr. Hook is factually true. Mr. Hook and I were colleagues. He retired two years before I did. What is also true, however, is that Mr. Hook’s colleagues knew he was a good teacher, particularly his fellow math teachers.

     With the possible exceptions of the absurd mega-high schools with thousands of students, teachers who have worked in a school for five years or more know who the good teachers are. They know that in exactly the way a majority of employees anywhere know who the good workers are, and it makes very little difference what the job is. That being the case, who do you think would make the best evaluators or assessors or judges of teachers? I would suggest the Mr. Hooks of the Public Education universe fill that bill.


  1. Jim,

    This is an excellent post, thank you!

    In light of the strike in Chicago, it seems clear to the American Public (at least to those of us who are paying attention) that the prospect of imposing teacher evaluations is anathema and “a deal breaker” to the unions.

    I reckon the prime directive for a good teacher is a commitment to teach well, in service of students. And not to get the most out of a contract, at the expense of students!

  2. I suspect you’re right: teachers would be the best evaluators of other teachers. Students? No. Partly because of what you mentioned about brain development. But also, often we don’t understand who our best teachers were until long after the fact. Miss Lunney was one of my best teachers, but she was strict and none of us ‘loved’ her at the time. On the other hand, Mr. Dodd was a hunk and easy-going, but I don’t remember thing one about his classes, only that we all had a huge crush on him. (Let’s not leave hormones out the equation of what keeps students from giving reliable evaluations.)

    Somehow I think I got more than my fair quota of great teachers (I can think of at least four), but oddly, they were almost all in high school. I can remember only one superb teacher from college (and he wasn’t even at my own college, but rather at the school where I took a guest semester). Is that because Uni profs are, frequently, more interested in pursuing their own academic goals?

    • Now that you mention it, there were only two teachers in my post-high school experiences that I pursued in the sense of taking other courses that they taught, and both of them were in graduate school. I suspect many if not most of those who teach undergrad courses are moonlighting a bit while they work on their own advanced degrees.

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