How to Become a “Good Teacher”

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white —
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

For a very long time in the U.S., the conventional wisdom has been that good schools were the key to just about everything — each child’s future, the nation’s economic survival, you name it.

More recently, that fantasy has narrowed to good teachers as the the “most important thing [fill in the blank].” And as I have examined, moving legislatively from NCLB to ESSA is unlikely to change that mantra, as delusional as it is.

So, if you began reading this in hopes of my analyzing why or why not to use VAM or any other myriad of teacher evaluation instruments, I must gently recommend your time may be better spent reading a volume of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fantasies, or take a stab an Ursula K. Le Guin.

Instead, this is a story, a true story about yesterday morning, a true story about yesterday morning and every year leading up to that during my 30-plus-years teaching career.

There is a powerful symbiotic relationship between being a teacher and a writer. Having just blogged about turning 55 — using Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven” to help me wrestle with aging — my mind was primed for attending the 2016 South Carolina Council of Teachers of English annual conference with three of my four students currently certifying to teach high school English.

This was the first professional conference and presentation for the three candidates, and it was a bit of a homecoming for me since I have been a career-long educator in SC, but haven’t attended this conference — packed with friends, colleagues, and former students — in several years.

I have always enjoyed students, my students, and I have always rejected the “don’t be friends wit your students” mandate as shallow and dehumanizing. (What the hell is there about friendship that is a negative characteristic? I have to ask, musing as well that people who make such bold claims must have really lousy friendships.)

If any student of mine offers friendship, I am always deeply honored by the gesture. It ranks equal to their respect for me as a person and appreciation of my credibility as a teacher.

So the conference was also a wonderful few days for the four of us to weave together informal teacher talk with just being four English nerds, and people. They also gave me opportunities to confront the tension all students and young people feel around teachers and adults: Whether or not they can be their authentic selves without risking judgment.

Don’t worry; I am vividly aware of how fortunate I am that this is my profession.

When Saturday morning rolled around and the presentation loomed at 10:45 AM, my students and I had ample time because of the structure of the day to set up our technology and for them to practice and prepare for an hour before the presentation.

They were each excited and nervous in their own ways (for one practice run, I was asked to leave the room). When game time rolled around, we had a solid crowd drift in — many friendly faces of my career included.

I offered a brief framing of the presentations — designed around the problem that being an English major does not necessarily prepare someone to teach writing — and then each of my three pre-service teachers shared her 10-minute talk, supported by a PowerPoint that I scrolled through in support.

And then it happened.

I felt the urge to cry well up in me, my chest, my eyes. I had already been overwhelmed by recognizing that in the room were four former students of mine as well as my three current students presenting.

But it hadn’t quite risen to my consciousness until that moment — a moment in which these three students of mine were stunning, smarter and more professional that I could have ever mustered when I was their ages or even 10 years older, and my former students in the audience were eagerly engaged, contributing wonderfully in the discussion at the end.

It was then I had my closing comments, anchored by a simple realization: “If you want to be seen as a good teacher,” I said to the audience, “then just have good students,” as I motioned to the three presenters and the the four former students in the audience.

If you think this is cheesy or self-deprecating, I don’t want to be rude, but you probably haven’t taught — or if you have taught, maybe you shouldn’t.

After the presentation, a former student who is now a teacher educator herself lingered talking to my current students, praising them and the work I do (she is vividly aware of the challenges of both being a K-12 teacher — since she was an outstanding ELA teacher herself — and being a teacher educator).

And as I listened, I knew even more clearly than I have always felt that I am not just every year of teaching I have ever taught, but I am every student I have ever taught.

I am left with a paradox — one that powerfully refutes the simplistic calls for “good teachers” and the relentless pursuit of quantifying “good teachers”: If you want to know if I am a good teacher, spend some time with my students, but then don’t be eager to give me too much credit for how wonderful they are.

We did all this wonderful together.

Originally published at radicalscholarship.wordpress.com on January 31, 2016.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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