I just began reading The Inspired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One, or Be One by Carol Frederick Steele (2009). I came upon it in a rather odd way. My dad was buying gas and a cup of coffee a few weeks ago and somehow struck up a conversation about me with a fellow patron. He mentioned that I had just gotten a degree in educational studies and she, who turned out to be a lecturer at Michigan State University, insisted that I read her book about teaching. My dad scribbled down her name and the book title and relayed them to me that evening.
Having never received any sort of formal teacher training (and very little informal at that), I’ve been wanting to gain some insight on pedagogy for a long time. I’m not sure yet whether this book is what I’ve been looking for, but I appreciate Steele’s desire to help all teachers improve their craft, regardless of their current levels of skill and experience. I’ve been intrigued by her discussion of a set of 8 qualities shared by expert teachers. Her list includes:
a strong sense of mission,
a desire to improve their teaching,
a holistic sense of teaching to develop individuals as well as impart facts,
a high degree of confidence in their own personal and professional views,
a peer support system that reinforces their sense of mission,
a form of support from significant others,
a sense of professional autonomy, and
a refusal to permit interference with their teaching mission.
I couldn’t help but consider how these traits related to the teachers I had while in school. I even went so far as to begin a chart in which I designated certain teachers as particularly good or particularly bad in each respect. Like probably everyone, I had a handful of favorite teachers through the years and a few that I really didn’t care for. It felt good to deeply reflect on my favorites and realize that the qualities on this list are indeed what made them great, or at least contributed to that.
But my analysis brought up some uncomfortable feelings as well. Feelings of guilt. I felt guilty for putting some teachers in the ‘bad’ column, even though I was trying to make an honest assessment. Why did I feel like I needed to do this? How much can I gain from reflecting on what I found to be bad teaching? How much of the big picture might I be missing?
I don’t think I was being unfair in recognizing that some of my teachers could have improved, but I was almost certainly wrong in labeling them as bad. It’s pretty unfair to label someone who has made a career out of an underpaid, usually thankless job as a bad teacher. As Steele points out, many teachers never progress beyond a ‘capable’ level of practice. Some might not believe it’s possible to get better, and some might not feel it’s worth the even greater self-sacrifice that’s required in order to do so.
It’s hard to blame them. The modern teachers’ college focuses on the practice of teaching much in the same way that medical schools train doctors in the practice of medicine. Teacher preparation has only recently taken on this clinical structure, but considering the import of the educator’s task, it certainly seems that saving a child’s livelihood is akin to a doctor saving her life. The American teacher sees only a shadow of the respect garnered by physicians, however. And certainly a mere shadow of the payscale.
As observed by Button and Provenzo (1983), the social prestige of the teaching profession is directly correlated with the difficulty of the material being taught rather than the difficulty of actually teaching that material. Hundreds of years ago, school masters taught Latin, a language that hardly anyone know and thus carried a great deal of prestige. When values shifted toward teaching all children, regardless of class, just enough to read the Bible and perform basic math, teachers’ stock plummeted. Naturally, it fell even further when women got into the profession.
My point is this: even today, society thinks that teaching is easy. They think kindergarten is babysitting, elementary school is a recitation of facts, and secondary school means handing a kid a book to read and a stack of worksheets to fill out. Maybe you’ll get some respect if you’re an astrophysics professor with a PhD. In reality, a college professor never has to worry about a little kid who wet his pants in class. Or a teenager who just won’t put her phone away. Or a middle schooler who somehow never learned how to read. Teaching is so much more complex than knowing one’s subject. It means staying attuned to students and their needs, along with a big dose of introspection.
I ended up reading this book because my dad bought a cup of coffee one day, but I wish I had come across it sooner. Being an inspired teacher is a monumental task, and most people—myself included—need to appreciate that more. A lot of teachers have more work to do and more improvements to make. But so does everybody else.
Button, H. W. & Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1983). History of Education & Culture in America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Steele, C. F. (2009). The Inspired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One, or Be One. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.