Teaching Philosophy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dennis   
Friday, 08 August 2008 23:32

What makes a teacher?

Gilbert Highet
Important qualities are innumerable. Teachers, of course, must be knowledgeable in their fields, able to communicate well, and be perceptive and sensitive to the needs of individual students. This last quality is the most important because a teacher must relate the material to the individual, and nothing facilitates education better than an abiding personal interest.
I have been fortunate enough to know teachers with all of these qualities, but rather than attach their names to my humble attempt to follow in their craft, I will instead mention two teachers in whose publications I have found immense comfort, vindication, and inspiration: Gilbert Highet and Jacques Barzun. These are humanists and teachers in the truest sense, their works worth visiting and revisiting. Highet's The Art of Teaching and The Immortal Profession, and by their side Barzun's Teacher in America and Begin Here: the Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning will never be far from my hand.

What makes for achievement?

Jacques Barzun
There is a common misconception that students who excel are necessarily more gifted or intelligent than others. The picture is sometimes painted more broadly to include the so-called underachievers, students with natural ability who are thought by some to squander the opportunities afforded them.  These kinds of portraits leave the teacher in the shadows.  What separates the achievements of students more than intelligence, ability, or social circumstance—about which the teacher can do little—is passion.  One is reminded of the gnome attributed to Edison that if a man has passed to his children enthusiasm, ‘he has left them an estate of incalculable value.’  The teacher’s task is the same, namely to help the individual student to find the value in a thing, to cultivate an appreciation of that value, and in the best of cases to pursue it with enthusiasm. I believe that all students, if given a reason to care, can succeed.
We may do well to adapt some old Roman advice for preparing an audience to hear your case: the approach we make should be taken ut adtentos, ut dociles, ut benivolos auditores habere possimus (Rhetorica ad Herennium I. III. 6). And how will we acquire an 'attentive, teachable, and well-disposed audience' but by communicating not only our passion for the subject at hand, but more importantly the value and the pleasures of learning itself?

What stands in the way?

Let me just add a final note to give a sense of how my philosophy translates into practice.
“In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the—Anyone? Anyone?—the Great Depression, passed the—Anyone? Anyone?—the tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which—anyone?—Raised or lowered?—raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression.”
— Economics Teacher, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off


Volunteerism is misplaced in the classroom. Those who volunteer do so either to impress or to help the teacher, yet the goal should be neither to be placated nor to be pitied. Volunteers fall into their roles, and allow the rest to hide. Volunteers may learn, but the others idle. Even a threat of “volunteers or victims” is misguided. Teachers should be more concerned with keeping students on their toes—learning or at least thinking—than with getting through the lesson. It is not the students' task to help the teacher, but rather to learn..
In short, let students know that you care about learning, give them a reason to care themselves, and never let them disappear. You and they are equally accountable, both as individuals and as a community.
Teachers of that mold have had the greatest impact upon my life, and I have tried to emulate them when given the opportunity.
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