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The Ideal Teacher

October 21, 2009

Almost everyone has a story to tell about a memorable teacher. Often, the story is about a person who made a difference in the student’s life, helping her or him understand geometry or semi-colons or irregular French verbs. Sometimes teachers are remembered because they took time to listen and get to know individual students. Although there are six themes of fun in learning (and probably many more), one element is clearly the most important according to my research: the teacher. Sometimes the teacher was not in the classroom and was instead a parent or a friend or a sibling or some other adult who taught something in a way that made it engaging, interesting, memorable, or otherwise fun to learn.

Because I teach teachers, I’m endlessly curious about what teachers can do to help students get interested in—and be successful at—learning. I’m particularly interested in the intersections between what teachers think is effective and what learners believe works. As part of my research into fun in learning, I ask teachers and learners what teacher actions are most effective for nurturing learning. I’ve organized these responses into five categories of connective teaching. As you read them, think about your own classroom experiences and the times when you really felt like you were learning something. What was it that made those experiences memorable for you?

Invitation (the teacher deliberately creates learning spaces where learners feel safe to be who they are): welcoming all students with their multiple and diverse perspectives and voices, accepting learners where they are and helping them gain enabling skills, recognizing who (and how) they are, expecting that they want to learn and are capable of doing so, supporting their learning, committing to helping them move forward, working with them to build safe spaces for intellectual and personal risk-taking, guiding intellectual growth, modeling lifelong and passionate learning, mentoring, engaging them in learning, laughing with them, relieving stress, trusting them, soliciting their interests, inviting them to build on what they know and to trust themselves as learners.

Inspiration (the teacher is interested in learning and learners and her or his excitement is contagious): stimulating thought, demonstrating and expecting creative and critical thinking and knowing, nurturing learning passions and self-directed learning, believing in possibility, teaching with enthusiasm, making learning active and thought-provoking, coaching, being hopeful, modeling respect for all, valuing the beautiful and the useful, insisting on quality work, teaching the difference between being responsible and being held responsible, promoting mindful approaches to learning.

Information (the teacher is knowledgeable and can help learners connect the subject to their lives and to their previous experiences): knowing something worth sharing, teaching in integrative ways, advising, providing relevance, drawing out students’ knowledge, differentiating between the essential and the interesting, evaluating sources, encouraging questioning, learning about students and using that information to individualize and differentiate, utilizing meaningful and varied ways to teach and to assess learning, modeling a life of continuing learning and research, being an interested observer of the world and bringing it into the classroom.

Integration (the teacher brings the world into the classroom and also honors the diverse world within the classroom, creating opportunities for connections): creating community and networks of support, modeling and nurturing listening and caring, reflecting, providing links between the classroom and the world, valuing diversity and using it to enrich classroom life, knowing students outside the classroom, bringing the world into the classroom, finding and maintaining opportunities that link students work in the classroom to work in the community, creating civic awareness and engagement, encouraging concern for social justice along with effective ways to work within systems, promoting multidisciplinary inquiry, supporting students’ development of leadership and other interrelational skills.

Implementation (the teacher encourages creative thinking and cares that learners can use course content): encouraging students to transfer and apply what they have learned in meaningful ways across disciplines and in their lives as they synthesize and integrate material from varied sources, encouraging creativity and innovation, being open to things students (and the teacher) may not have thought of, encouraging hope and possibility, seeking and honoring ongoing input from all participants, using that formative input for improving, changing, growing.

What would you add to creative, connective–and effective–teaching?

Teachers are two kinds: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just give you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies!
• Robert Frost

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