When I read about school systems forced by budgetary pressures or changing priorities to increase class sizes, I wince. Despite its allure, throwing more and newer technology at overcrowded classrooms does not, to my mind, make up for the creeping depersonalization of education, which concerns me greatly, given what I see as the fundamentally human nature of education. I’d like to explore that human essence of learning here.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job, as a school administrator, is meeting with prospective students and their families. On average, I will spend an hour and a half in an initial interview, asking questions, yes, but also stepping back and encouraging the student to direct the conversation.
It’s truly rewarding getting to know students and their particular geniuses – along with their wishes, frustrations, interests, and how they view themselves. Over the years I have met with hundreds of students, and I am constantly reminded that you can’t generalize people and everyone is an individual.
But I’ve also come to recognize that virtually all students, their individualities aside, will describe the teacher, not the subject or class content, when I ask them about their favorite class. It seems to be a universal truth that a student’s favorite class is the one with his/her favorite teacher. And it’s an inverse law: it’s the teacher, not the subject, students describe when asked to reflect on negative experiences.
For me, and I know for so many other students, parents and educators, there’s no question that the teacher is everything.
It’s certainly not remarkable that a great teacher is at the heart of a positive student experience. Rather, what’s struck me over the years is that students, regardless of background, will describe their favorite teachers in similar ways, as if they’re talking about the same person. So who is this Great Teacher?
For simplicity, I’ll call her Ms. Friedman, and here’s what I know about her.
Ms. Friedman’s genius as a teacher – her ability to bring out the best in her students – lies in three approaches:
- She creates a space for students to be part of the learning in the classroom.
Ms. Friedman’s class is a space of active and creative learning. The students are asked open-ended questions, rather than factual questions, which require higher-order thinking and invite them to engage with content on a deep level. Students’ opinions truly matter, because they are contributing to an open exploration, and the learning feels purposeful. The students feel heard, appreciated, and good about themselves.
- She is knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic about her subject and lessons.
Ms. Friedman’s happiness and love of what she does is infectious. She knows her stuff – she’s smart, smart, smart – but her intellect is inspiring, rather than intimidating, because she appreciates and invites her students to co-create the learning in the classroom. They feel: I can be like Ms. Friedman too.
- She understands and appreciates her students as individual learners and works with them “at eye level,” giving them specific, honest, and encouraging feedback on their work.
Ms. Friedman devotes considerable time and energy to giving her students meaningful and specific feedback on their work, and she expects them to build on her feedback for their future work. It’s a cultural principle in Ms. Friedman’s class that we all have strengths and areas needing improvement – no two individuals are perfectly alike – and her students see her notes as constructive encouragement, rather than points of failure. Her students feel safe and are motivated by her feedback to set higher and higher expectations for their work.
This is an idealized portrait, I know; teaching and bringing out the best in students is no simple job. I’ve met so many amazing teachers over the years, all of whom have their own unique strengths and approaches, and who are much-loved by their students. I don’t mean to say that Ms. Friedman represents the Platonic form of The Great Teacher. Still, her portrait has emerged from my many conversations with students, and, when students share their thoughts and experiences, I tend to listen carefully.
For me, the takeaway is not that teachers need to model themselves after Ms. Friedman. Rather, as a school administrator, I care most about school structure and making sure nothing complicates or prohibits Ms. Friedman from being Ms. Friedman; and as I consider Ms. Friedman’s three approaches – i.e., how students I’ve spoken to describe their most positive learning experiences – it’s immediately clear to me that the greatest factor is classroom size.
It’s clear to me, too, that education is still about people, and there is no substitute for student-teacher interaction. The great challenge is creating and maintaining structures that support and encourage that fundamental human interaction.
Head of School
The New School of Northern Virginia