David Solway on “The Good Teacher”

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David Solway on “The Good Teacher”

  • November 15, 2018
  • By Admin: mrbauld
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‘There is no such thing as an effective method in the custody of a defective teacher. I have never known a bad teacher who could be improved by a good method. And I have never known a good teacher who needed one.’

-Neil Postman: Teaching as a Conserving Activity

The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us, said the Mock Turtle angrily 

-Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The teachers whom I remember as having exercised a decisive influence on my own development as a student were rarely those who would have done well in Teachers’ Training College. Some of these were splendid teachers anyway – articulate, funny, erudite, and compelling. Others were so poor they could only charitably be described as failures. When Mr Curreymills suffered a nervous breakdown during Quadratics in full view of his high school class – this after a half-year of threat, expostulation, and paroxysms of helpless rage – he altered the course of my

academic career and revised my notion of the profession. That was the last time I ever placed a tack to puncture authority. Or, much later, when old Professor Gill lectured us on modern literature from a thick, yellowing sheaf of notes he had no doubt compiled thirty years before in his glory days as a graduate student, I conceived an enduring love for paper, parchment, vellum, anything one could write on – which disposed me to consider literature as a vocation. I was never bored by his droning monotone, but waited impatiently for the climactic moment when he would lick his finger like a postage-stamp and then turn the sepia and deckle-edged page, a reverent Egyptologist. I loved the sound the paper made, half-rustle and half-crackle, as the withered leaf of dead ambitions settled to mulch in his portfolio. Bad teachers occasionally have much to tell us.

But what do we mean by a “good” teacher? We often tend to confuse the “good” teacher with the “qualified” teacher, forgetting there is a world of difference between quality and qualification. Hiring committees base their judgments largely on a teacher’s paper value, counting degrees and certificates as if they were convertible into the cash value of intrinsic competence. Perhaps the majority of these teachers, hired on the strength of a quasi-fiduciary illusion, turn out to be academic wimps of the first magnitude. There must be some other way, one would like to suppose, regardless of how expensive and time-consuming, to distinguish the good from the qualified. Job-proctoring sounds fine in theory but practice as usual proves otherwise. Once a teacher gets on staff he becomes almost undislodgeable, the archetypal limpet. Once he acquires tenure, he becomes part of the rock.

And by “good” we certainly don’t mean “conspicuous.” A teacher may devote himself to activities on behalf of the students; he may become an indispensable member of half a dozen committees; he may write letters to the editor opposing ministerial fiat and so attain a kind of community prominence; he may campaign for anything from better day-care facilities to new methods of professional evaluation. All this briskness and alacrity has nothing to do with the matter at hand, yet the poor teacher may become the staff patrician as a result of such prodigious and futile activity.

Nor do we mean “reliable” to the exclusion of other, at times antinomial, traits – some of our most influential teachers may in fact have been notoriously irresponsible. Reliability is meritorious but not imperative. A teacher may be punctual, hardworking, prepared to the hilt, strict in the performance of his manifold duties – yet, when the vote is counted in later life, eminently forgettable.

And finally, we do not, or certainly should not, mean “popular.” Not that quality and popularity are mutually exclusive, but how often in future reckonings do we not give belated recognition to the teacher we scorned or detested, the one whose classes we did everything in our power to avoid, whose lectures we attended only grudgingly and out of direst necessity and who, nevertheless, took our dull, refractory, amorphous minds and gave them shape and substance? The man or woman we loved to hate; then, as insight offered, still reluctant, hated to love; and at last, old enough for gratitude, hate not to have loved when the opportunity was there.