Decoding Education: A New Way to Look at Your Favorite Teacher

William Courtney Posted by William Courtney.

CAL grad & former Berrett-Koehler intern. Looking to find fellow writers, sports enthusiasts, redditors, and people oozing with interesting stuff.


Decoding Education: A New Way to Look at Your Favorite Teacher

How to answer that pesky question

Whenever I create a new online account, say for online baking or content sites, they require you to pick from a few predetermined security questions. They range from favorite pet, to your first job, but there is one specific question that always makes me stop and think. “Who was your favorite teacher”?

The question is always asked with such certainty; it is assumed we’ve all had a favorite teacher. I tried to think of that one person, but no one person immediately comes to mind. Yet how is this possible, given the number of teachers I’ve had. In fact I’d never thought about the actual number. I wonder if this large number prevents some people from choosing a favorite teacher.

Trying to calculate this number is harder than it looks. I settled on 100, give or take a few. I looked at my elementary school teachers, then middle and high school, and finally college. Of course each person will be different and this number represents a “normal” schooling. Still, I didn’t expect that number to be so large and have that many people have been responsible for my education. So, I decided to think about this situation more in depth.

Looking for the 1

I didn’t set out to count all of the teachers I’ve had, in fact I was only looking for one. That one teacher who has had such profound effects on people’s lives they still think about the lessons and experiences years later. This teacher, at least my utopian version of them, would have sparked a lifelong desire to learn.

Yet, I realized I didn’t have one of these teachers. I began to think, do they even exist? Well I know they do because they are the ones we read about in newspapers and see in the news. For instance my Uncle George, who is in his mid seventies, has been a physical education teacher for over 40 years. He still has students contacting and thanking him for the positive effect he’s had on their lives.

During the historical investigation into my past, I settled on one teacher from kindergarten through high school that could fall into this category. That was Ms. S.*

Below is a video from the 2008 presidential debates, which shows how each person has a different criteria for picking a favorite teacher.

Ms. S

Ms. S was my freshman Civics teacher and also my junior history teacher. I didn’t stay after class to discuss history or the state of current affairs, and at the time I didn’t even think of her as a favorite teacher, but those two classes were by far the most beneficial. I learned more about essay writing in her classes than I did in any of my English classes. To this day, I still remember her lectures on writing thesis statements or how to outline papers.

The class was definitely challenging, even more so than the history classes I would later take at community colleges. Yet, no matter the work load she always made you think you could succeed. She would always tell us, “This class shouldn’t be about remembering facts, I want you to understand the history”. This meant no multiple choice questions or fill in the blanks, it was all short essay and long essay format (I hate to harp on this notion, but again the history classes I took at community colleges involved a lot of multiple choice and remembering dates. Lectures involved copying what the teacher said. I didn’t realize how good I had it until I was gone. I didn’t return to Ms. S’ type of history class until going to UC Berkeley).

At the time I didn’t appreciate the teaching as much. During the class, the notes were endless. If you even missed a sentence she said, it could ruin your test chances. The class also had the most amount of busy work than any of my other combined. However, looking back I realize how important her classes were to my college success. She didn’t necessarily spark a new creative interest, but what she did give me the tools necessary to advance as a student.

The Best Teacher in You

After reading Charlotte Ashlock’s article on the upcoming book, The Best Teacher in You,** I began to think more about my schooling, ending up on this article. The book spans seven years of research on Highly Effective Teachers (HET’s) and what makes them so successful. It goes through personal stories, especially when these teachers overcame immense challenges to connect with even the most difficult kids. Even though the book is geared towards current teachers, it is also appropriate for anyone in a teaching or leadership position.

An interesting way to think about teachers effectiveness actually comes from a simple diagram in their book. After studying it for a few moments, I noticed traits from previous teachers. Yet they mostly had only a few traits and were lacking in others.

Bfk Connect

The good and the bad

After looking at the diagram and thinking more about the teachers I’ve had, I couldn’t ignore the bad ones. I’ve had ones ignore me, give up on me, tell me I’ll never attend an excellent university (after this incident I left the office seething, determined to prove them wrong).

It was as if some teachers were put there as road blocks, just to see if you could get around them and move to the next step. I was lucky enough to keep going, yet not everyone is. Just like there could be one teacher responsible for a success story, there could be a single teacher responsible for derailing a student.

Appreciation

During the mourning phase of my education career, I again thought of Ms. S and other teachers like her. She wasn’t there to be everyone’s friend, she was there to make sure we made it to the next step, yet she was also respectful enough to work through your struggles or hear an objection to the methods.

I realized there was in fact a relationship there, though it wasn’t obvious at the time. It’s teachers like this, one’s dedicated to helping you succeed, that have the most profound effect on education. I have to agree with Charlotte Ashlock, that the best teachers are able to live in all four quadrants of the teacher framework.

Going forward

Through my self-reflection, one point becomes clear: the best teachers are the ones that connect life (our daily lives and experiences) to the subject matter we have to learn. It’s these teachers who prepare us for life. That’s why, the above diagram and book overall, is beneficial to not only teachers, but anyone. We all have people we teach, whether its children, family, coworkers, athletes, clients, or strangers. Why not bring out that best teacher in you and apply it to daily life?

*I focused on elementary, middle, and high school teachers for this because it connects with the book better. Also I felt these teachers had a bigger hand in helping you, as opposed to college professors, but this is definitely open to discussion. This should be a good opportunity to say how amazing my professors at UC Berkeley were. I would love talk about how great they were or how knowledgeable they were, though that will have to wait for a later date.

** Book release is 6/9/2014