By Daniel Coupland
What makes a good teacher? The answer to this question depends in part upon the mission and purpose of the school at which the teacher works. When we talk about the notion of good in connection to teaching, we need to think about whether the teacher is a good fit. This is especially important for administrators who need to fill teaching positions, for practicing teachers who want to improve their teaching, and for future teachers who want to know how best to prepare for a teaching career.
Within the educational establishment, the good teacher is the technically-proficient teacher, who has been trained–by teacher educators, mentors, or colleagues–to view teaching as primarily the application of a narrow set of pedagogical skills or techniques. The teacher is expected to employ these instructional techniques during the varied acts of teaching, such as planning a lesson, managing a classroom, or modeling a particular skill. Under this view of teaching, success in the classroom depends upon the technically-proficient teacher’s ability to: 1) identify the instructional situation with all of its variables, 2) choose the appropriate instructional strategy from the variety of techniques in his pedagogical quiver, and 3) correctly employ the selected technique.
The technically-proficient teacher often thrives in a traditional public school because, just like his own education, the K-12 curriculum is designed to provide students with a narrow set of vocational skills. The technically-proficient teacher is asked only to become skilled in his narrow vocation: the delivery of a prescribed curriculum whose goal is to prepare students for the world of work. Therefore, he can accomplish his goal without the benefit of a liberal education, that is, an education that requires a person to consider complex issues and ideas of life.
But the technically-proficient teacher will struggle to fulfill the mission of a liberal arts school whose goal is to do more than prepare students for the world of work. As Sister Miriam Joseph so aptly states, “The liberal arts…teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.” For this kind of education, students need more than a technically-proficient teacher. They need a liberally-educated teacher.
The liberally-educated teacher does not treat teaching primarily as the application of a narrow set of pedagogical skills, but, rather, as a complex endeavor that weaves together what the teacher knows and who the teacher is.
The liberally-educated teacher is knowledgeable in at least three ways. First, he is broadly educated. This means that he has read about, considered, and discussed some of the most important ideas from across a wide variety of content areas. He has learned that all knowledge is related, and he is able to see important connections across discipline boundaries. Second, he is deeply educated in at least one subject area. As part of his own liberal education, he is required to pursue ideas beyond the surface and to develop a certain level of mastery in a particular field of study. The knowledge that the liberally-educated teacher acquires from this endeavor will, no doubt, be useful in the classroom. But beyond this most obvious benefit, the liberally-educated teacher, through his in-depth exploration of a field, recognizes the vastness and complexity of knowledge and cultivates a healthy curiosity and respect about what can be known.
Third, the liberally-educated teacher is well-versed in the language arts. He recognizes that good teaching depends, not on the application of a narrow set of skills, but on a mature understanding of how language works. He knows the structure and function of language (grammar), he knows how language can be used to clarify one’s thinking (logic), and he knows how to communicate his ideas orally and in writing (rhetoric). These three language arts (known as the trivium) allow the teacher to communicate effectively, not only in teaching, but also in every communicative activity of life.
Consider teaching Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s work is revered not simply because of his skill in using language (how he wrote) but also because ofwhat he wrote. Whereas a liberally-educated teacher would encourage conversations about the themes Shakespeare chose and the meanings of those themes, a technically-proficient teacher might avoid the themes and instead discuss only stylistic elements of his writing, the history and context, etc. He makes every effort to avoid unpredictable events in the classroom because he fears situations for which he has never acquired the appropriate technique. The result?
In order to keep students’ questions and classroom discussions within the narrow spectrum of his skill set, he and his students might miss the most important aspects of the Bard’s plays.
The teacher’s knowledge by itself, however, is not enough. Who the liberally-educated teacher is matters too. A liberal education is an initiation into the examined life, not simply preparation for a future career. If taken seriously, the liberal education experience transforms the teacher intellectually, morally, and spiritually. He is more than an instructor. He is a model of a liberally educated adult for his students to emulate. The liberally-educated teacher witnesses a transformation of his own life due in no small part to the liberal education he receives and recognizes the great potential that this experience has for others. He believes in the transformational power of the liberal arts and wants this same kind of experience for his students.
Hillsdale College is committed to preparing the kind of liberally-educated teachers that are described above. First, our teacher education students spend most of their freshman and sophomore years completing a rigorous core curriculum that includes a broad course of study from across all the major academic disciplines including history, literature, science, mathematics, politics, and the arts. Throughout these core courses, instructors often employ a read-discuss-write format that requires adeptness in the language arts. Second, all teacher education students—including those completing the requirements for elementary certification—must earn at least a major in an academic discipline. Hillsdale College does not have education majors. Elementary teachers are required to complete an academic major in one of the following subject areas: mathematics, science, or English. Secondary education students must earn both an academic major and minor from a list of 12 choices. Finally, teacher education students at Hillsdale College must complete a unique teacher education program that encourages students to be liberally educated and accomplishes this task by requiring students to read classic texts—rather than textbooks—which support this notion of a liberal education. The list of authors within these teacher education courses includes Plato, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Mortimer Adler, Jacques Barzun, and others.
The knowledge-rich curriculum of the Hillsdale College teacher education program demands a great deal from the students who choose to complete it. We believe, however, that this knowledge-rich curriculum is why our teachers are, and will continue to be, in such high demand.
Daniel Coupland, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of education at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. Dr. Coupland welcomes responses from readers. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.