Image: Trey Ratcliff
One of my current teaching colleagues is a bloke by the name of Brendan.
If you were to spend as little as ten minutes in our staffroom, I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if you came to the quick conclusion that Brendan and I are like chalk and cheese.
Brendan teaches Numeracy. I teach Literacy.
Brendan claims to be a bit of an old-fashioned teacher, preferring to teach mainly from the front of the class to students in rows facing a whiteboard. I tend to teach from the back or middle of the classroom, very seldomly using the whiteboard.
Brendan does meticulous preparation in advance and guides the learners through very carefully and professionally designed workbooks with a clear sequence (that he has made himself). He spends a lot of time in front of the photocopier. I do a lot of exploring in advance and present taskwork fully online, with a very flexible sequence and very open to direct negotiation with the learners. I spend absolutely no time in front of the photocopier (excluding the times I find Brendan perched there and stop by for a chat).
Brendan's desk is invariably so neat and tidy you could quite possibly eat off it. My desk usually looks like the lair of the Abominable Paperman.
Brendan seems to be able to turn his teaching mode on and off like a switch. When he reads this and realises I wrote it at home after work, he'll be thinking of smart ways to tell me I need to find a hobby...
Chalk and cheese?
This week, as we tie up the academic year, I had some groups of learners review and 'assess' all of their teachers via an open writing task. Given the different approaches and methods Brendan and I have, one might expect the learners to have very different reactions to us as teachers. In fact, reading the learners' assessments, I was surprised to see just how similar the comments were about us.
"Knows what he is talking about..."
"Very good at explaining things in different ways to help me understand..."
"Enjoys a good laugh, which makes the classroom a fun place to be..."
That was the general gist of many of the comments directed towards both Brendan and I, and this similarity was pronounced when compared to the comments other teachers received (not to detract from a wide range of positive feedback those teachers received, but the recurrence of three very similar comments for two teachers in particular was what struck me).
Based on this very limited sample, one could be forgiven for beginning to form the idea that, irrespective of methods, approaches and materials (and their mode or sequence of delivery), what learners really warm to in their teachers is:
- Strong awareness of their subject matter
- The ability to adapt and explain things in different ways for different learners
- A good sense of humour
These basic principles might seem to be self-evident to many readers, and to be honest they're not really anything new to me either. However, seeing this assessment applied to two very different teachers and teaching approaches certainly begins to increase the salience of them as essential teaching priorities.
It makes me think about the pre-service teacher education programs obsessed with documented lesson planning, regurgitation of discrete techniques and 'methodology', and teachers awarded salaries based on years of teaching 'experience' and the impressiveness of their 'qualifications' paper draw...
I don't think many learners give a fat rat's posterior about those things. Most, in my opinion and experience, want a teacher who knows what he/she is talking about and can apply it with both mobility and mirth.
Beyond those essentials, perhaps things like methods, styles and materials are purely peripheral?