Monday, October 31, 2011


The 'smart' teacher

Nithya Siddhu

| The Star/Asia News Network |

Mon Oct 31 2011

Good educators are not determined by their race, qualifications or personality, but by their willingness to strive for the best of themselves.

Deepavali was celebrated a few days ago. This festival of lights never fails to remind me of how much teachers should live up to the fact that they are called guru.

Befitting its Sanskrit meaning, a guru, like the deepam (light) is a "remover of darkness". Therefore, teachers should enlighten.

Recently, I received three e-mails from a group of teachers undergoing their postgraduate diploma in teaching at a local university.

I had given them a talk on action research but I was surprised to note that the burning question they all sought me to answer was this: "How can I become a better teacher?"

They all desired to be teachers who would be respected and remembered fondly by their students.

In view of the nationwide concern that the quality of teaching in this country is in dire straits, I must say their question deserves a well-thought out answer.

Over the past 25 years, I have worked with, met and observed scores of good, dedicated teachers but whenever talk turns to the subject of poor teaching, fingers inevitably get pointed at a teacher's race, level of education or years of teaching experience.

Truth is, good teaching has more to do with a teacher's personality, character, attitude, values, personal beliefs and intelligence than anything else.

In my opinion, here is what it takes to make a good teacher. I have used the acronym SMART to exemplify the salient characteristics that I personally think make the crucial difference.

S - structured, systematic, yet spontaneous and stimulating

Yes, a good teacher is an organised person. Her lessons are well-planned, her preparation thorough and her teaching progresses from the simple to the complex and abstract. She is aware that teaching is her core business and she takes it seriously.

I have, in fact, seen teachers teach with such attention to detail that it is as if their lives depended on it! They are on the right track because they see teaching not only as a means of livelihood, but as a profession that needs and thrives on passion.

Therefore, they make it their business to teach well - teaching briskly, efficiently and in a businesslike manner. In their classes, they give clear presentations, speak clearly, are expressive and easily understood. They also use a wide variety of models, aids, examples and methods to ensure understanding of the material taught.

Being performance orientated, they set academic tasks that are age and ability appropriate. Yet, they have a strong sense of "with-it-ness" and can spontaneously adapt their teaching to suit any new circumstance and situation that arises in the classroom.

I cannot count the number of times I had to "rise to the occasion" rapidly and change (often on the spot) the kind of stimuli I used to arouse and sustain interest. Sometimes, in the middle of a lesson, I would have to change tack and throw in a game or two (or change from teacher-student interaction to student-student interaction) simply because I knew the lesson was not generating interest.

M - Master of the subject they teach

It was John Milton Gregory who said, "The teacher must know that which he would teach. Imperfect knowing must be reflected in imperfect teaching".

When a teacher of English can barely write a grammatically correct English essay herself, does it matter what race she is?

If a teacher is trained to teach Physics but has no clear idea how the hydraulic system works, does it matter to his students that he holds a Masters degree in Educational Management?

If a Mathematics teacher still struggles to solve a challenging question on calculus in last year's SPM paper, does it matter that he's been teaching the subject for many years?

In contrast, students will appreciate the newly qualified Chemistry graduate who knows his subject well enough to teach them a unique way to remember the name of all the elements that are more reactive than carbon.

Take pride in being the master of the subject you teach and you secure the respect of your students.

In my 16th year of teaching, I was asked to teach Form Six Biology. This was a huge leap from the Form Five Biology syllabus, which I knew like the back of my own hand.

I remember getting up at the crack of dawn to devour Reese and Campbell's Biology textbook for A-Levels, just to be one step ahead of my students!

I studied like crazy, prepared fresh worksheets and learning modules, and became a student all over again. The truth is this - you really must know that which you teach!

A - Affective

In all the years I taught, my students responded with alacrity whenever I took the trouble to "affect" them positively. My personality mattered!

Teachers have to be charming, lively, interesting, fun, creative, interested, giving, engaging, encouraging, warm, amiable, pleasant and a hundred other things just to melt their students' hearts.

Good teaching takes a lot out of you. Personally, I found teaching very rewarding yet intensely exhausting.

Are your students "affected" by your teaching? Do you have a positive impact and "effect" on them?

If teaching is all about bringing about positive change in the mind, emotion and will of students, the teacher who has the "oomph" personality wins hands down.

I realised years ago that my students didn't care one bit what race I was or whether I had any Javanese, Singhalese or Fuchow blood in my veins.

All they cared for was this: Could I attract and maintain their attention and interest? Was I kind, helpful, just, concerned, a good listener and a person they could talk to?

You are truly mistaken if you think the specific blend of DNA you carry in your cells matters.

What matters to them is who you are as a person. If you are caring, unprejudiced, understanding, empathic and supportive, they will appreciate your teaching.

R - Responsible and responsive

The word "responsible" is about the ability to respond. Good teachers respond to the professional demands set by their work, leaders, superiors, colleagues, students, situations and circumstances in a way that reflects their character.

Primarily, they seek to understand first and then, respond to the real needs of their students.

The good teacher always asks questions such as: "What it is that my students don't understand or find it difficult to understand?"

"How can I make the understanding of this material easier and more interesting for them?"

"How can I help them become better learners and better people?"

In other words, "How can I educate my students?"

And, in turn, "How can I educate myself?"

Character is the backbone of a good teacher.

A teacher with character responds to challenges by being industrious, professional, ethical, diligent, just, honest and trustworthy.

She knows teaching is a huge responsibility and she acts accordingly to lead a principled life.

Year after year, one of the things I strived for was to be a moral exemplar to my students. I use the word "strive" because it is far, far easier to preach than practise!

When you realise that things are easier said than done, you also wake up to the fact that constant struggle and the resultant learning must be part of a good teacher's make-up.

T - Thinking and reflective

Compared to a person's academic level of education, I respect intelligence more in a teacher. The reason is simple.

A good teacher needs and uses intelligence to reflect and think about her practices. She uses it to innovate, improve and develop as a professional.

The thinking, reflective teacher is one who spearheads true progress.

By asking herself constantly, "what works, and what doesn't?" and fine-tuning her teaching methods, she is miles ahead of those who are in a teaching rut simply because they have stopped thinking about how they, or their approaches can be changed or be modified to improve matters.

The reflective teacher will step away from mundane, routine ways. Anytime. Anywhere.

In the final summation, I am reminded of the courtroom scene in William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice.

In it, this is what Portia famously said:

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

I sometimes think she could well be talking about the quality of good teaching.

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