The comedian Robert Klein does some very funny routines about what it was like to be in school in the ’50s. What teachers demanded, how they dressed, how students behaved, standup recitations and air raid drills provide much material for his act. I can relate. Every Friday afternoon just prior to dismissal, my sixth-grade teacher at PS 152, Mrs. Ostreicher, would have the entire class stand and recite in unison: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until the good is better, and the better is best.” My wife’s teacher would tell her students: “Now pass out quietly.”
This mantra was one among many of Mrs. Ostreicher’s pedagogic gems. I still remember it today and strive to apply it in many settings. As an educator, I believe that it is my responsibility to bring out the best in myself as well as from those whom I supervise.
There are good teachers and there are great teachers, and even some fantastic teachers. Some teachers come by it naturally, some can be guided to achieve excellence, and then there are the rest. A veteran teacher may have 20 years of experience, but is it the same experience repeated 20 times? As the Ba’al Shem Tov said, “I never daven the Sh’moneh Esrai the same way. Each time is a new experience.” So too with teaching; it has to be fresh each time to maintain its vitality.
The first element is proper preparation. In general teachers need to be trained in pedagogy and certified as proficient in their craft. It is a skill that can be learned, although there are some natural teachers who just seem to know how to engage students. I do not believe that any school will hire a general studies teacher who is not certified, but the same is not the case with Limudei Kodesh teachers. The other aspect of preparation is a good lesson plan with goals and methodologies clearly articulated. Proper supervision of teachers can insure that this process is taking place. A principal can be an administrator or an educational leader. Time in the classroom every day observing and critiquing teachers with formal and informal observations is essential.
A second element is enthusiasm for the subject material and for the process of imparting knowledge. If a teacher isn’t animated about the symmetry of equations or the beauty of poetry or the majesty of biblical narratives how can the student be excited about them? Passion is a key ingredient. Very often we find this passion in Pre-K and the primary grades when children come home excited about new knowledge. How often do we see this in older children? Who gets excited about quadratic equations, iambic pentameter, a Rashi or a fascinating Talmudic discussion? I have observed many teachers who have this spark and our children reap the benefits. It doesn’t happen in every classroom. “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until the good is better, and the better is best.”
A third element is a support system for talented teachers and the availability of resources. Today’s smart boards and computers bring much to the classroom that was not available in previous generations. Field trips are a great accessory in a teacher’s toolkit. Museums, labs, nature preserves, factories, ships, concert halls, airports and workshops can bring to life lessons learned in a book or from a computer screen.
Caring is the fourth leg of this well-balanced structure. Not only caring about what and how the subject material is taught, but about each student, his or her anxieties, fears, home life and needs. Although schools have social workers available, it behooves each teacher to serve as a sort of first responder to issues affecting his or her students. Why is a student always late, or missing homework, or drowsy, or not clean? We lead very complicated lives and sometimes it takes a toll on children who need help to navigate life outside the classroom. Sometimes it is enough just to listen.
There are many qualities that go into being a great teacher. Google has dozens of websites describing them. Quality teaching is not a sprint but a long-distance marathon. It is hard work and reflective practitioners have to constantly work on themselves. Mrs. Ostreicher was right.
By Wallace Greene
�Dr. Wallace Greene, a veteran Jewish educator, believes in clinical observations and supervision as vital tools to develop teaching excellence.