(I'm still working on this, but of course you're welcome to read around in it--and to send me your ideas about it.  Please type the address into the "To:" box of an email message  )

Being a Teacher

Oh, I know--every teacher is the best teacher and has his or her own good advice to offer.  Well, I hope you'll find at least some things in this list that you haven't heard before.

The trouble is, a teacher is a whole and being  a teacher is being your own teacher, and not somebody else's and it's also teaching yourself.  That is, it's more a frame of mind, or an attitude, or something organic like that.  Well--it's being!

I think also that being a teacher is more like being on a journey than like being at a place.  I don't want to push that metaphor too hard, although it seems clear to me that being a teacher is certainly not a static condition.  There's no rest for the teacher.  (You can make what you want of that.)

What being a teacher is not is adopting a few tips from anyone's list.

Okay, you won't find any tips here--even if some of them seem at first to look like tips.  None of what you'll find below is separable from the others; they're all partial descriptions of the whole being, and the whole being is you AND the subject--not your "method" and not your "course" and definitely not tips.   A tip is something practical or pragmatic, like Learn every student's name in the first week.  (A good idea.)  Or, Keep a copy of every paper for three years.  (What are you afraid of?)

Naturally, you want to know as much of, and about, your subject as you possibly can.  And you want to know how others in your discipline think about the subject.  I suppose that goes without saying.  That's knowledge and understanding--but knowing and understanding, though necessary, are not sufficient for real teaching.  You also need that whole being business.

All right, here are some aspects or parts or actions or attitudes that I believe are of being a teacher.  They're in an order that feels right to me, but not necessarily in one that will seem logical to you.  Make your own order.

I've written them in the second person--to you--because you're going to read them, not me.  But I feel uncomfortable about that because I have no business telling you how to be a teacher.  (There are times I'd like to tell a colleague what to do--or where to go!--but this is different)  So please keep in mind that I'm really just describing  myself--who I am and what I try to do.

One more thing before going on:  It took me a long time--decades--for me to learn most of these things, and I had to learn them by doing them--by being them.  I don't think it's too likely that most of them will immediately seem obvious or sensible to you.  Maybe if you're lucky or exceptional.


Know that most of your students do NOT think or learn like you (unless--perhaps--they're all doctoral candidates).

Admit your ignorance.  Use it, don't hide it.  It's your greatest strength.  Your knowledge is your greatest weakness.


Try never to ask questions you already know the answer to.

Don't grade individual pieces of a student's work.  If you can't avoid grading, grade the work of the whole course.

Work as a coach, not as a catechist or gatekeeper.

Use positive feedback.  (Get over your academic's learned hatred of exclamations!)



Establish the class as a learning community in which everyone cooperates and collaborates.

Know the fundmental purpose of your course.

Ideally, every student should achieve an A in the course.  With that aim, grade quotas are irrelevant and no one needs to compete against the other students for a finite number of A's--and certainly not against you!  (The only exception to this is when a course is intended to weed out students who aren't predisposed to think in some specific way or work at some specific level of expertise.)



I want to pass on to you something that a guy in one of my l classes gave me about 25 years ago:

There's a bottle with a goose inside.  Problem:  how to get the goose out of the bottle without harming the goose or breaking the bottle.
If you can respond and know you're right, you're already okay!

(One of the neatest things was that the student attributed this to "Zen Cohen" and told me later he thought this "Cohen" guy was probably some ancient Hebrew mystic--yet he knew his own response was right.)


What do you think about this so far?  I hope you'll post your ideas in the forum for Being a Teacher.

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