I was blessed as a teacher to have some of the worst teacher role models, in both public school and college. Each helped me learn what not to do as an educator.
In high school I had the worst geometry teacher imaginable. He had favorites, and I wasn't one of them. I failed his class, yet when I took it in summer school, I received two As for the same material. The difference was the second teacher took the time to teach.
During another summer, a Claremont College teacher taught a literature class at Cal State. He assigned each of us a book, and we wrote a final review. He gave me a C, a failing grade for a graduate student. The day I got the paper back, I went to talk with him. He had left on vacation. I received the low grade because he thought my work was copied. It wasn't, but he didn't even ask me. Thus I learned teaching is about caring and taking the time to communicate.
The best way to learn is from good role models. The worst teachers I’ve had possessed one thing in common -- they had no idea what good teaching was. They didn't recognize it because they felt they were doing a fine job. Even when they did their required college observations, they didn't go out of their way to observe the best teachers. They just booked observations with friends or at schools close by. If they were lucky, they got to watch a great teacher in action. So lesson number two is look at what other teachers are doing.
At conferences, attend presentations by classroom teachers. Visit other schools. If this fails, give students a letter at year’s end and ask them to return it after they complete their next year of study, telling you what you could have done better to prepare them. They don't have to sign their name, either. Although the return rate is only about 10 percent, I’ve learned a lot over the years. I learned I was not writing assignments large enough on the board. I learned when sitting, students could not hear me. Finally, I learned my grade structure (points) was too complicated. So I changed to, hopefully, become a better teacher.
Also remember there’s a difference between the best teacher and your favorite. Analyze your feelings. I was interviewed in Canada recently and asked about the difference between the two. I explained they needn't be mutually exclusive, but in main, the best teachers’ lessons could apply long after you left their classroom. The favorite teacher had a class that was fun.
I frequently read students’ writing about fun classes. When I ask what makes a class fun, it is usually because it is easy. A Nebraska professor once told our staff he could tell the best teacher on any campus because it’s the one students complained about most. And the complaint? Too much work. So to be a better teacher, make a list of traits your best teachers possessed and try to emulate those.
Another negative experience I benefited from was having teachers who isolated themselves in their classroom. I don't mean they kept the door locked, but they didn't make their subject applicable to life and other subjects. Class work was simply a matter of memorization. In junior college, I had a teacher whose final was to put 100 historical events in order. That teacher could have been replaced by a computer program, and the learning would have been the same. Don't teach in isolation -- physically or mentally.
Over the years I’ve observed plenty of teachers had favorites, and sometimes that created problems for the students who used this to their advantage. Additionally, the other students knew it. This is a double whammy. Be fair to all your students, and remember they are not your good buddies. Understand them and have compassion for their situation, but be aware such “friendships” may be taken differently by the student. I don't allow late work unless there are circumstances the students cannot control. They can turn in late work because it is a learning experience. However, they receive no credit because that is also a learning experience.
Alan Haskvitz teaches at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, California, and makes staff development presentations nationwide. He serves as an educational consultant, curriculum developer and author.