Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Skills/attributes necessary for outstanding teachers

Today, Steve Dembo blogged about how people arrive at his blog by searching for an answer to the question “Describe the skills or attributes you believe are necessary to be an outstanding teacher.”

Within today's entry, he linked back to when he initially discovered this phenomenon, and how he felt these potential teachers were only cheating themselves by looking for someone else's answers to use.

From there, you can get back to his "Writing When It Counts" entry from April of 2005, when he first wrestled with the short-essay question himself.

I found the entire process fascinating, and (I admit) I am kind of wondering what Steve wrote in his response to the application question back some three years ago.

I agree totally with his assessment that each teacher needs to write his or her own response, from the heart, and not take what someone else wrote as their own. But, of course, if someone does find something inspiring from another educator, it would be only fair to cite that person's original writing. I know that when my students ask me a question to which I don't know the answer, I tell them, "I don't know that right now, but I know where we can go look to find out." Isn't that really what teaching, and indeed parenting, is all about?

Teaching prepared me immeasurably for becoming a parent. I feel the single most important attribute a teacher can have is respect, and along with that inevitably comes honesty. The funny thing is, these are the qualities by which I try to guide my entire life, not just my career as an educator or the choices I make as a parent. When we respect others, we are, above all, honest with them. We must force ourselves to be humble, even when we know that we're right about something and the other person is wrong. Students know instantly whether or not we have respect for them. But it's also a good idea to have a conversation about respect, what it means, and what it looks like, with each group of students with whom we interact.

Kids also know when we're flying by the seats of our pants. If we make it fun enough -- a sort of adventure we're on together -- they don't seem to mind as much. But if we have enough respect for them to be honest about the fact that we're discovering something together, they will feel that we genuinely care about them enough to admit that . . . "You know what, kids? Adults don't always know everything, and it's better you learn that now before you become one of us and expect too much of yourself too soon!"

Of the adults reading this, I ask: Can you remember a time that, in your role as a responsible adult (teacher, parent, etc.), you simply did not know what to do? I sure can. The key to being grown-up (other than being taller than my four year old son) is knowing that you don't know everything.

So, what if I had to answer that short-essay question right now? (Although I feel I must point out that it's not really a question but rather a command -- imperative sentence.) Would I talk about respect, honesty, and humility? Knowing me, I would probably quote the end of my favorite Robert Frost poem ("The Road Not Taken") and talk about how I have had a mini-poster of that posted in every place in which I have taught since I began my career sixteen years ago. I'm a bit of a weirdo in most settings. I have my summer hair, my funny t-shirts, my tattoo (soon to be tattoos), and I don't wear makeup or dresses. How would this serve to answer the question?

Respect starts with self. How can I respect others if I do not honor and respect myself? If I require respect from those around me, modeling respect in how I treat others, it's a win-win situation, right? I guess I have just learned to try to live by the Golden Rule and not be too hard on myself when I don't get it right. Being an outstanding teacher really comes down to learning who you are as a person, maximizing your ability to teach others using the traits you have always had, and always striving to grow in your ability to be comfortable being yourself for a living.

Almost sounds easy. Ha.

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