What makes a good teacher?

I have a tonne of blog posts I need to catch up on this week, but as a result of a conversation I have had with a few people this morning, and partly in response to the proposal ‘should we bring back the cane?’ on The Big Questions this morning, I want to record my view of discipline, as well as my conflicted attitude to the person who was probably my best academic teacher in secondary school.

First, to my response on the question: I find the very idea of corporal punishment enacted by teachers on children to be heinous.  No society that beats its own children and calls it ‘discipline’ is even remotely civilised.  Teachers are facilitators of learning, they are not there to restrain, bully or beat children.  Discipline, furthermore, is not about doing as one is told. That’s ‘behaving’ and even then, perfect behaviour does not necessarily create enquiring minds.  Discipline is the art of developing a respect for oneself and the people and environment in which one exists, as well as the capacity to facilitate and direct one’s own efforts for personal improvement.  This isn’t something that could ever be achieved in an environment of fear and abuse.

As a qualified secondary school teacher myself, I know exactly how difficult it can be to maintain authority in a classroom, and I know that some students are almost compulsively disruptive.  But this is a problem with the nature of the curriculum and the structure of the classroom, and it is not a problem either with the pedagogue or with the student as such.  Students that disrupt the learning of other students should simply be offered different (often kinetic) learning practices rather than visual, auditory or text-based learning.  Yes, I know those kinds of experimental and experiential learning practices are expensive, but this is no reason to return to the bad old days of corporal punishment to ‘maintain order’ in an age where order itself is challenged in a chaotic and fragmented information society.  Of course this needs further exploration, but my point is that trying to apply a ‘solution’ of caning to a problem of anachronistic teaching practices and curriculum structures is deeply flawed.  Besides the discontinuity between cause (bad behaviour) and effect (so-called ‘good’ behaviour), corporal punishment is barbarous, iniquitous, hypocritical and inhumane.

Now: to the notion of what makes a good teacher.  There’s no doubt that a teacher who inspires true discipline in his or her students is one who will also have the greatest effect on their lives.  Most of us can remember a handful of teachers who have monumentally affected us, but often these people didn’t just teach us a subject area; they broadened our horizons of understanding and often gave us the emotional support and confidence to be able to think more critically or engage more effectively with the world around us.  Most of my mentors of the past have come from my life since starting university. From my undergraduate Professor, Trevor Barr, at Swinburne, to Prof Peter Spearritt, Chris and Janet Baker, Jenny Hocking and John Arnold all at Monash Uni and to the folk at the Brisbane Graduate School of Business and Creative Industries at Queensland University of Technology, I have had the fortune of being surrounded by wonderful and inspiring teachers, colleagues and mentors who have all had an enormous impact on my professional career.  But prior to my university years, there are only a few teachers I can identify as being particularly influential for me.  And given one (at least) of those was a ballet teacher – Pauline Waters – it may not appear that my secondary academic teaching was of a particularly high quality.

But that’s just not true.  I believe a good proportion of my teachers were competent, decent individuals.  And I believe many tried very hard to inspire in me the discipline I have defined above.  I just don’t think I was terribly interested in responding to most of them.  And then I’m afraid there were some poor teachers who earned no more than my contempt.  Like most teenagers I cynically assumed I knew more than my teachers, and was rather bitterly disappointed to find I was occasionally right. But in truth there were only a few teachers who were genuinely incompetent and most were either satisfactory or good. Basically, I hated school, didn’t want to be there, I wanted to be a classical ballet dancer and I blamed everyone (including myself) for my failure in that regard. Once I had to consider alternative careers, I was directionless and grieving, and few teachers actually pierced my facade of nonchalance.

One teacher did affect my career, however.  I won’t name him because what follows is a candid account which is not entirely positive.  Those who went to my high school may know to whom I am referring anyway.  Let’s just call him Mr X.

Mr X was a science teacher who taught me for three years in succession from Years 9 to 11, although he taught me different subjects every year.  When I entered my Year 9 science class, Mr X greeted me by name.  He’d gone through the class photos and memorised all the names of his students for the year.  I was shaken, but impressed.  During that year I grew in confidence in my science knowledge because Mr X encouraged people to challenge what he was saying.  In many ways he was a traditional teacher, using chalk-and-talk and demonstrating experiments, but he also promoted independent thinking and in spite of his often brutal temper, he clearly admired those who were prepared to stand up to him.

By Year 10, Mr X had practically hand-picked a class of students for a subject which was probably appropriately called ‘General Studies’ but which included politics, philosophy, advanced science and mathematics (including quantum mechanics), computer programming, and theories of being.  It was, to all intents and purposes, an experiment in forcing students who were otherwise bored with mainstream curriculum to think differently.  It was also, without a doubt, an exercise in streaming education, something which would probably today be regarded as ethically questionable.  I didn’t do particularly well in General Studies (I was probably at the tail end of the hand-picked students in terms of natural ability), but I did establish how I learn, and what my strengths were in engaging with ideas, better than I had done throughout the rest of my teaching experiences as a student.

In Year 11, Mr X taught me Physics.  Now generally I didn’t like science.  I might come from an entire family of scientists, but I found science either boring or difficult or both, and I was uninspired by the curriculum.  I enjoyed popular science and how things worked, but I could not be less interested in a career in science.  However, Mr X made Physics interesting, and I could actually see an application for the science in a real world environment, so I enjoyed it immensely.  Again I didn’t do terribly well, but I enjoyed the way that Mr X challenged my understanding.  And there’s no doubt about it: Mr X was very clear that he thought I was much brighter than my results indicated, and my sense of my own capability extended.  He believed I could go far.

So that was my educational experience of Mr X.  Now to the man himself.  He was known throughout the school as thoroughly weird. He must have been in his 40s by the time he was teaching me, but he was, if anything, old for his age.  His fashion sense was nil, wearing the same style of shirt and tie and blue or brown jumper over non-descript trousers for all his teaching years, though he would relax out of the tie and jumper in the summer months. He patrolled the campus like a vulture, staring students down with a menace that inspired fear in the juniors and hilarity in the seniors.  Wearing very thick glasses, his eyes were always almost pin pricks beneath those lenses, and his voice was gruff to say the very least.  He ran the school chess club, having been a champion in his youth, and when he wasn’t at the chess club at lunch time he was usually found alone.  He rarely attended the staff room, or was seen talking to other staff.  He claimed that was because he couldn’t abide cigarette smoke, and in those days teachers would smoke like factories in the staff room, but there was also the distinct impression that Mr X didn’t actually like many of the staff at the school.  And if my information was correct from the time, he was a grown man who lived with his parents.  So he essentially fulfilled all the basic criteria as a loner and a geek.  He did drive a motorcycle, but even then he did so menacingly, and again it was a decidedly solitary mode of trasnportation.

He also made a few comments and behaved in a manner which would probably now be regarded as decidedly inappropriate, and even then was questionable.  Whilst I was never even remotely concerned that he would ever act inappropriately towards me, he had been known to compliment my appearance in a manner that teachers just shouldn’t.  And there was a story going around about him joking to another student that he’d pay to get a picture of me in a bikini at my Year 12 school camp.  I can’t verify if this was ever actually said, but I have to say, it wouldn’t have surprised me.  If anything, it would probably have amused me at the time. But looking back it just disturbs me.

I don’t know the full details, but I understand that a few years after I finished school there was some trouble between Mr X and a student. I don’t know whether violence or another form of inappropriate behaviour was involved, but when my fellow students heard about it we all winced, but were not shocked.  We knew the man was essentially anti-social and perhaps dangerously naive in the manner in which he engaged with some students.

Here’s the thing. I admired then, and I still admire now, the man who gave me the confidence and the strategies to learn and to engage with education.  I attribute to him, almost entirely, my entrance into university studies and I am incredibly grateful for the trust he placed in me for my academic ability.  My question is whether, in my cynicism for education and academia generally whilst I was in secondary school, I respected Mr X as a teacher more for his deviation from acceptable behaviour than I would have done if he had been socially well-integrated.  I don’t actually know the answer to the question, but I suspect it was partly Mr X’s apparent contempt for some of his colleagues that made me think I’d come across someone I could trust.  His intellect (which was substantial) and his refusal to integrate with fashions, people and behaviours isolated him, but it also provided a basis for comparison.  I may initially have regarded him as a mere oddity.  But he was also an inspiring pedagogue; he could create curriculum and lesson plans that were nothing short of ground-breaking.  And through his very difference, he challenged dominant thinking, and charged us with doing the same.

I have no doubt in my mind that Mr X was that incredibly inspiring teacher who changed the way I looked at the world and myself.  I have no doubt that I was privileged to have been in his classes and that without him, my life may have taken a very different path. But I am also acutely aware that my best secondary school teacher was a deeply flawed human being. And I’m aware that it may not have taken much for Mr X to go from a great teacher to an exploitative, and even iniquitous individual in his behaviour towards students.

To me a great teacher is one who is the embodiment of critical thinking, but who also cannot and will not ever breach the trust placed in them.  Whether such a teacher would have inspired the level of understanding I derived from my time with Mr X is something I can never truly know.

Be Sociable, Share!
This entry was posted in personal and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.