Saturday, December 4, 2010

Do Great Teachers Need Great Students?

Walt Whitman once said, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.”

I was reminded of that quote today while reading the refrigerator magnets at a friend’s house, and I have been wondering since then if the same can or should be said of teachers.  The reason this issue has been weighing on my mind all day is because at first I thought the answer was simple:  Of course – if we measure teacher “greatness” by student “greatness” (which is often measured by test scores), then the best teachers will obviously teach the best students.

You may be thinking something like,

“Wait a moment, Dr. Roddy.  Teacher greatness can also be measured in other ways like student growth, motivation, collaboration, etc.” 

To which, I would respond,

“I agree, but let’s reverse the logic and see if it still stands up.  Let’s explore the idea that the students with the worst results are taught by the worst teachers.  Would you agree with that statement?  Probably not.”

So where does that leave us?  Do great teachers need great students?  In order to bring some structure to this answer, we need to discuss what a “great teacher” and a “great student” is.

The “Great Teacher”

Pop quiz, who can list all the teacher standards outlined by their district, system, association, etc.?  I know where to find them, but as far as knowing them well enough to use in this conversation I cannot.

No problem.  Can you describe a great teacher in terms of your own experience as a student and/or a teacher?  I predict that this question not only induces much less anxiety, but actually has the potential to bring a smile to your face.  This is especially possible when thinking back on one of your own “great” teachers.

If we shared our own answers, I also predict that we would share a number of consistent stories and descriptions – many of which would to have anything to do with grades at all.

Now let’s talk about the “great student.”

The “Great Student”

The vast majority of students I have taught have been very good students.  By that, I mean that they were organized, prompt, cared about their work, and made good grades.  Great students, for me, are thus extremely difficult to describe.  Part of this difficulty is based on the fact that I am very optimistic about student potential and have some internal programming that makes me feel somewhat unethical about subjectively categorizing students in that manner.  On the other hand, I can describe what I would consider an ideal student.

For me, the ideal student wants to learn for learning’s sake.  This desire can be accompanied by other motivators such as good grades, rewards, recognition, etc., but the one common denominator is a desire to learn because, to these students, learning and the learning process is enjoyable.

The ideal student asks good questions that not only dig further into the subject, but also inspire other questions – often asked by other students.  Ultimately, the level of discourse is elevated by the engagement of the ideal student.  The ideal student helps discover other ideal students.

Awhile back, I blogged “great teachers are defined by great teaching and great teaching is mostly visible in a classroom filled with engaged students.”  I still believe this to be true.  Just as I believe that teaching does not exist if there is no learning (and thus learning does not exist without some form of teaching), great teachers and great students have a symbiotic relationship.  If the “devil is in the details” then in this case, things get hotter when we try to define greatness in education.

I am far from an expert on Walt Whitman, but maybe the very act of caring about the “audience” enough to empower them to define the “greatness of the poet”, is possibly the very definition of “greatness” we seek for teachers.

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