What makes a good teacher?

This week we had a lot to reflect about. I am a teacher, so the topic was particularly relevant to me.

I particularly liked the idea of a “becoming” teacher. I’ve been teaching ESL for little more than 15 years now, but every school year is different from the previous one; students are different and the conditions, too, often change. Even if your class is the same as the previous school year, the students have grown up and even three months holidays are a long time when you deal with teenagers. Every beginning of school year you plan new projects, technology is updated; so it requires a new strategy and to adapt your lessons consequently. Besides, there are always lessons you feel were not effective and you want to change, or you want to do something new or better. So you are never “accomplished” as a teacher. I strongly believe that one of the priority skills of a teacher should be resilience; the ability to adapt to students and the school environment.

Indeed, a good teacher has to be able to “adapt” to students, contrary to what I often hear from my colleagues. A good teacher should know each students, each special way of learning, each interests and special skills and use them to support learning. This is not easy at all, it requires good planning and the willingness to listen to your students and respond to their needs. Last year I was teaching in a new school, two different classes of the same grade, but very very different. In both classes there were special need and difficult students, but the class dynamics were completely different. In class A all students, even those who were brilliant, were totally put off school; they were not learning because they considered irrelevant what they were taught, their motivation was rock bottom. Class B had about 40% students who were interested in learning, 30% were quite indifferent to learning and were following passively, the remaining 30% was not interested at all. I tried in different ways to hep learn recover motivation. Firstly, I involved them in a virtual exchange project where they had to use technology to share their ideas about climate change with other classes in Europe. The two classes needed different approaches. In class A it was already very difficult to have them gather information about climate change, causes and effects. It was hard to make them understand this was an issue directly relevant to them. Most of them could not see the purpose. So, I simply asked them to present their findings in a way they could share it online with the other classes. They did not even know what a Powerpoint was. They were very engaged, though and could find a purpose for what they were learning: connecting to other students. With class B it was completely different. They were deeply involved and engaged. They did personal research, connected the topic to recent events they heard on TV, namely the high level of pollution in China and the beginning of the Global Conference on Climate in Paris. I proposed them to use Power Point or Thinglink (www.thinklink.com) to show what they had learnt. They organized themselves in groups and most of them wanted to use this latter tool which allowed to link different ideas using the same image as a background. With class B activities went on for a longer time, because they were interested and were reading texts in English, which is the subject I teach. With class A I tried also other activities to involve them, such as having them translate into English short dialogues in their dialect, but they were happy to write down the dialogues in their dialect; when they were asked to translate it, they had only two classmate do it. They were not learning. Finally, I tried a more traditional approach; we were reading texts adapted to their level and answering questions to understand them. This seemed to work better, because this was the learning strategy they were used to. One of the students told me one day she felt confused this year, because the previous it was clear they had to learn vocabulary by heart and be able to match Italian and English words. That was it, whereas with me they could not “follow”, this is what she said, because I was too demanding.  With class B things went differently, they were more willing to try new things and particularly enjoyed lessons that were not traditional, such as using quizzes, web-quests and even listening to songs.

So, going back to the lectures of this week. I agree there is no final definition of a good teacher except one that can take into account all the factors affecting learning, both emotional and cognitive. I keep learning from my students. My job as a teacher would have no meaning without the students. I look at teaching as a service and students are my end-users. As in any business relationship, the satisfaction of the end-user has to be granted and in order to do so, we have to know our end-users better. This means learning about the way they learn, which is different maybe from ours, and adjust our curriculum and strategies to it.