Thursday, August 10
School will soon be starting, and I look forward to the start of school with the same high level of enthusiasm that I had when I first started teaching. When I no longer have that enthusiasm, I plan to hang up my academic spikes and let someone with the requisite enthusiasm replace me; teachers should do the same thing. One cannot be a good teacher if he or she lacks a love for students and learning. Some recent experiences I had this summer have caused me to reflect on what makes good teachers. Some outstanding teachers and college professors created an insatiable thirst and love for learning in me, and I have been pondering what made them different than average and below-average teachers.

When I first entered the field of education, universities were debating the claim that "good teachers are born, not made." Professors in schools of education took exception to this claim of course, but candidly I would say that some of them inadvertently gave credence to that claim. These professors had studied education, and they were trying to teach people how to teach, yet some were poor teachers themselves. On the other hand, I had some professors in academic areas who had never taken a course on how to teach, and they were outstanding professors. Physics professor and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman never took a course in how to teach, but his students at Cornell published his notes and this 3-volume text is still in demand 40 years later.

The outstanding professors that I remember were not just good lecturers, they were also motivators. These great professors convinced students that they cared about them, and they promoted enthusiasm for the subject they taught.

Mark Alter and Gordon Pradi, both education professors at New York University, recently wrote an article about how teachers are best prepared. They cite studies that have shown that both qualified and unqualified teachers are found throughout education, yet we are still unable to establish what precisely led to the creation of both kinds of teachers. This is not cutting edge stuff. I suggest that these professors need to leave the university campus and get into some K-12 classrooms and talk to students. Educational scientists (an oxymoron, perhaps) would say this is an anecdotal and non-scientific approach, but I say students and parents know a good teacher when they see one.

Good teaching is like that mystical property of "class" that you can't define, but you know it when you see it. While class can't be defined, it can be improved upon, but it can't be taught in a classroom. So it is with teaching. Teacher education is important, and staff development is essential to the continual improvement of teaching, but one needs to start with the right ingredients UCLA professor Madeline Hunter identified the five essential elements of good instruction, but she did not try to identify the personal characteristics of teachers.

I believe there is one essential element required for good teachers, and that is what I call a teacher's heart. We need teachers with good academic credentials giving evidence of subject matter mastery, but that alone does not ensure good teaching. To be an excellent teacher, it requires dedication and devotion to teaching, learning and working with students. The SVSU has some excellent teachers, and this summer I have interviewed and hired some teachers that I believe will prove to be outstanding in the classroom. The enthusiasm that some of these people demonstrated in their interviews and discussions about their goals inspired me, and reassured me that the public school future is bright for our students when we can expose them to good teachers.

The SVSU is using professional learning communities that allow teachers to share experiences, expertise and knowledge with one another. Having teachers collaborate with one another allows teachers to help other teachers, and it tends to ensure that students receive the best possible instruction. Students can return to our SVSU schools knowing that they will have some excellent teachers and will receive sound instruction. Perhaps the real question is who is happiest about school starting - the parents or the students?


    Wesley Knapp is the superintendent of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.