A talented educator:
What qualities make someone a good teacher? A simple and important question that we must answer at various points in our lives, but to which we often don’t give enough thought. Is it how well someone present ideas, how engaged the students are, how well the students retain the information?
When my wife was completing her training in Jewish Montessori education in New Jersey, she attended a meeting at a local school that was attempting to incorporate new teaching methods. The lecture focused on differentiated instruction— “Educate each child according to his or her way” (Proverbs 22:6)”
As the lecturer shared ideas with the faculty, one of the teachers was clearly bothered. During the question and answer session, this teacher—concerned about the burden of transitioning from traditional methods—remarked in frustration, “Why do we need all of these new methods? Isn’t it enough that we care about the children and want the best for them?”
A young learner is likened to “ink being written on fresh paper” (Ethics of our Fathers 4:20). At such a tender age, parents entrust the curious minds and sensitive souls of their children to the hands of educators. And while a caring disposition is important, it’s not enough—any more than it’s enough for a kind doctor with good intentions to perform a brain operation without medical training.
“But this teacher relates so well to the students,” some parents argue. “The children love this class.” Energetic storytelling and lively classroom entertainment alone do not cut it. Teaching is a craft—albeit highly underpaid— and an enormous responsibility. An educator must attempt to grow, constantly be evaluating and improving. This progress applies all the more so these days, when there is an abundance of resources: literature and training, online worksheets to download, and technology to make the class stimulating and skill-oriented. But many teachers are stuck to their own means and don’t want to adapt to each child or incorporate new methods.
Character and Craft:
Yet the above problem can swing in the opposite direction. Innovative techniques, the use of PowerPoint and smart-boards to enhance presentations, a variety of materials and hands-on learning should never be a substitute for nourishing the human element of education- the simple sincerity and devotion that the teacher must have for a student.
I have seen certain teachers get so carried away with researching and quoting the latest studies on how people learn, displaying their innovative teaching techniques to wow parents and colleagues that they ignore some fundamentals. In the worst cases, this suave academic front masks an inability to emotionally connect to people. The teaching—the craft—becomes more about perfecting a professional image than the desire to connect to the students.
The result is that while people are impressed, learning is impaired because the students do not admire or relate to the educator as a person. The intellect of the presenter is on display but the heart—the warmth and sincerity which enhances the student’s receptivity—is nowhere to be found. Indeed, when it comes to imparting information (especially to children) there is no substitute for a genuine interest in the student’s growth and building a personal connection.
For this reason in the first paragraph of the Shema, in the explanation of “and you shall teach them to your children”, the word “children” is not taken literally. Instead it is interpreted to mean students. Students are referred to as children throughout Jewish literature to underscore the level of devotion that a teacher must have. And while difficult or unmotivated students are part of every class, one must always remember to make a strong effort for all one’s students.
During the current period between the two festivals—Pesach and Shavuot— there is a custom to study the Ethics of our Fathers in an attempt to refine our character. One of the reoccurring topics in Judaism relates to the teacher-student relationship, and the qualities that make learning successful.
First and foremost is the character of the educator. In addition to developing the presentation and teaching methods, an educator must look inward. A teacher must seek to remove those character traits that are obstacles to connecting to the students. The two primary barriers are pride and anger. “Someone who is overly strict—or short-tempered— cannot teach (Ethics of our Fathers, 2:5.)”
So when it comes to evaluating a teacher, a professor, a head of school, or any educational leader, there must always be two considerations: the character (the desire to connect to and an interest in people) and the craft (the pedagogical skills). Both aspects are critical for good leadership; neither can be used to compensate for the lack of the other.