color photo of Robin Williams standing on desk in classroom in film Dead Poet's SocietyAfter this pandemic is over with (or at least sufficiently in the background of American life to warrant little comment), plan to go into a classroom and ask yourself, does this classroom have life?” That’s the key test of whether there’s any real learning going on. There could be fake learning going on, to be sure. Busy students, lots of talk, lots of rustling of papers, but if there’s no life, there’s nothing going on really. At least nothing of any importance.

Teaching programs, styles, and theories mean nothing without life. You can have any kind of teaching approach as long as it has life. A single person with a group of kids in an empty room, if that teacher has life, is better than a classroom filled with enrichment equipment of all kinds and a teacher who dully prods the kids to use them in lifeless structured ways.

The Human Connection is Vital

We’ve forgotten about the teacher-student relationship. These days theories and programs have gotten in between that relationship. Yet, for thousands of years, it was this crucial relationship that passed on knowledge from one generation to another, that kept the culture moving. The teacher guru sitting in silence with his students. The students following the teacher through the forest as they learned how to hunt. Or the students sitting at the feet of the master cobbler as they learned over a period of years to make shoes.

These days, the teacher-centered approach is back in fashion. When I started out as a teacher in the 1970’s, the focus was on student-centered learning. Now I’m student-centered myself, but I’m also teacher-centered. The center is really in the relationship itself.

I’ve seen classrooms run by teachers who do little themselves but try to get the students to do all the learning for them, and that doesn’t seem to me quite right. It’s just as bad as classrooms where a teacher stands up there all egotistical and full of himself and controlling; in ignorance of the true needs of the students.

Teacher-centered or student-centered are the wrong terms. Life-centered is what should be the criterion. If the relationship has life. If the teacher is full of life, to begin with. And if the teacher has the ability to impart that sense of life to the students, then all is right with the world.

The Dysfunctional Teacher

I suppose a teacher could theoretically be full of life but also too full of himself to be of any help to students. This sort of reminds me of Harold Skimpole in Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House,  who was a sort of man-child who was oh so sensitive to the needs of others, yet who neglected his own kids at home and who also neglected to live as a responsible adult human being.

The teacher has to have the child in them to be sure – she has to be neotenous – to have retained child-like qualities into adulthood – otherwise there’s no curiosity or enthusiasm. There’s only psychosclerosis (the hardening of he mind), and the ”been-there-done-that” type of attitude of the teacher who thinks that everybody should fall down and worship her for all the knowledge she possesses.

This sort of teacher is more common the more you move up the grades until finally in the college classroom is can become quite monstrous. I’ve seen college teachers ritually humiliate students because they interrupted one of their brilliant lectures.

What Makes a Teacher Really Really Good

Here’s what the essayist and journalist H.L. Mencken had to say about the kind of good teaching that all our kids deserve [I’ve changed some of his masculine words as needed].

“It consists, first, of a natural talent for dealing with children, for getting into their minds, for putting things in a way that they can comprehend. And it consists, secondly, of a deep belief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a concern about it amounting to a kind of passion.  A teacher who knows a subject thoroughly, so soaked in it that she eats it, sleeps it, and dreams it — this individual can almost always teach it, with success, no matter how little she knows of technical pedagogy.  This is because there is enthusiasm in her, and because enthusiasm is as contagious as fear or the barber’s itch.  An enthusiast is willing to go to any trouble to impart the glad news bubbling within.  She thinks that it is important and valuable for students to know; given the slightest glow of interest in a pupil to start with, she will fan that glow to a flame.”

We all can perhaps remember such a teacher in our own lives, although sadly I doubt whether many of us could count such teachers on the fingers of one hand.  It would be so healing if our educational leaders and teacher evaluators would look to this basic human criteria for what makes a teacher good, rather than dwelling on whether they’ve raised students’ standardized test scores.  Hopefully, after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, educators will be shaken out of their ”data-based” approach to teaching and learning, and return once more to the vital importance of having teachers who inspire awe in their students.

For more information about teaching and learning in natural ways, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.

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About the author

I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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