Continuing a survey of student opinions of teachers, the report this time is from an eighth grader in his last year of middle school. Max, (not his real name), is a bright, verbal youngster who had clear opinions about what makes good or bad teachers and was happy to share his ideas.
I asked him what it was like moving to a new school for middle school and having different teachers for each subject, a change from grade school. He said he was mentally prepared for this but even so it was hard at first. Now, he said with great enthusiasm, he finds it so much better and wouldn’t want to go back to the old way. What is so good about it? “You’re not stuck with one teacher if you get a bad one.” Also, he made new friends because different kids are in each of the classes.
Now, having a number of different teachers, he is able to see the differences between them, some more flexible than others. In his view, the good ones are very intelligent, want kids to know what they are doing and most of all “want you to learn.” Among his own teachers, one he loved and one “was not the best.”
So, what is a good teacher? “A teacher who gives assignments that are clear so that classroom discussion reflects what was expected. Someone who is flexible – not completely strict. You don’t work as well with a teacher who is completely strict.” Max interrupted himself to say that he realized he was mixing up strict and clear. He was using strict to mean someone who is clear with rules and respectful of kids, not necessarily mean, but clear not rigid. His favorite teachers have been those who were clear in their expectations and flexible in response to the class. He gave an example of a teacher who was able to be responsive to ideas expressed by kids that were not necessarily those he had in mind.
Strict, in the bad sense, are those who are mean, who berate the class. “Someone who doesn’t respect you and doesn’t really want you to learn. You go downhill with that kind of teacher.” With some feeling he mentioned teachers who take a special disliking for certain kids. He had a teacher like that who talked about how bad the other classes were. He dreaded that class and it made him feel like giving up.
Max said that kids have to know “there will be bad teachers and you have to be ready to advocate for yourself.” How? “There has to be someone you can go to if you feel a teacher is being unfair.” They have someone like that – a teacher who is there for that purpose at his school; also team leaders who are available to talk to. I asked if the system works and Max said sometimes they are responsive and sometimes it backfires.
He told me about having gone to talk about one of his teachers with whom he was having a difficult time. The next thing he knew that teacher emailed his parents to complain about him – how difficult he was. What happened? His mother contacted everyone involved pointing out the sequence of events and that obviously what Max had discussed in confidence had been reported back to the teacher in question. However, at other times kids concerns actually are given some weight.
I asked Max how the people who are involved in improving the quality of teachers could know who the good ones are. He immediately answered that the kids in the classroom are the best judge. They should have a survey at the end of the year in which kids would say which was the best part and which was the worst part of that teacher’s teaching. They would not have to give their names and it might even be a questionnaire they would fill out.
For Max, the best teachers are those who are available to have a dialogue. He gave an example of having missed a question on a test and the teacher took the time afterwards to discuss the question with him and clarify the meaning. The best teachers are available to listen and are responsive. That is where flexibility – a word he kept coming back to throughout the discussion – comes in.
Flexibility, does in fact, appear to be a key trait needed for good teachers. Too often, when people speak of the need for structure, this ends up being rigidity. Flexibility within clear structure seems to be what Max was getting at as the hallmark of a good teacher.
Ask the kids!