What I Learned About Teaching From My Teachers

I was an educator in the Ontario Public School System for over 33 years. Over the course of my career, I’ve often thought about what I learned from the teachers I’ve had throughout my life as a student. From the teachers I had as a student, I learned about the kind of teacher I wanted to be, and the kind of teacher I did not want to be.

The excellent teachers I had showed me that excellent teachers genuinely enjoy their job. Not only do they love the subject they teach but they also love learning. They’ve found ‘the’ way to teach all of us — the ways to explain things so that everyone gets it. Those who are gifted educators see education as teaching the whole kid – one kid at a time. These educators believe that learning is growing – it is a process not a product. For these teachers, school is more than classes and tests — it is being involved in the fabric of the place. They are involved with students outside of the classroom and they encourage their students to explore all their interests – athletic, artistic, leadership. They know that much of the best learning in schools happens ‘in the cracks’.

The work these teachers give their students is challenging but it is also real and honest.  It isn’t seat work. And these educators hold their students as able to do what the teachers are asking of their students.  Excellent teachers don’t set their students up for failure. They encourage students to try — mistakes aren’t the end of the known world. These educators trust their students to try their best and to learn and grow.  Students are rarely on the receiving end of ‘Do what I’m tellin’ you!’ or ‘Do what I say not what I do.’

Gifted teachers are fair and consistent. They don’t judge or pre-judge any student because of experiences with the student’s siblings. They don’t compare students one to another. And they use their own experiences to understand students. They don’t rely on negative comments from previous report cards.

Excellent teachers have a sense of humour and joy. They are all ‘people’ persons — they not only like people in general but they also enjoy kids. These teachers recognize ability, encourage new ideas and ways of approaching work. They give credit where it is due. They are never too proud to apologize.

Students of such teachers know from the first day of class that they can and will be able to learn from the teacher. Students of such teachers do not approach learning with trepidation.

But I also learned from the unhappy, tiny-minded teachers of my experience. I learned what not to do and how not to be. So, what is a this ‘role model’ of an educator?

These teachers are unhappy, uninspired and uninspiring. They often identify themselves by the subjects which they teach and to which they ascribe a hierarchy of value and importance. Somehow, they believe that if they teach the ‘hard subjects’ [math and science], then their work is more valuable than those who teach the ‘soft subjects’ [English, music, art]. These teachers also often regard their colleagues who teach the ‘soft subjects’ as not be as worthy. I often wonder if these unhappy teachers even know or like their colleagues?

These teachers have stopped learning or seeing the need to. Teaching is an ‘iron rice bowl’ — good or at least reasonable pay, a good pension plan, and short days, and lots of holidays. So they rarely take courses (even general interest courses) unless they want to move up a pay category. They don’t see that they have anything to learn from teachers new to the profession.

I have often thought that these teachers had not changed anything from year 1 AD, you know? — the same lesson plans, the same handouts, the same tests, the same expectations, the same ways of evaluating (tests and exams and written assignments only), and the same comment banks.
Accommodations, what accommodations? — if any student doesn’t understand, the teacher seems not to know how else to explain any concept of material so that the student can begin to understand. And the teacher seems to resent having to try.  Such uninspired teachers impart to their students that, if the student does not grasp the material in the way it is taught, then it is the fault of the student.

Inept teachers seem to go through the motions. — Do they even know who their individual students are? Do they even care?

I remember in one of my classes [grade 13 English] where, if my answer didn’t match what my teacher expected almost verbatim, then it my response wasn’t even acknowledged.

I had teachers who seemed to get off on hurting kids, or who played favourites . One teacher let my whole class know that she was doing us a favour my teaching us. She was not happy with having to teach that particular subject and we in the class all knew it.

For these stultified teachers, kids are slotted into convenient, predictable, neatly labelled boxes based on past performance in school, where they live, what their parents do, who their friends are. — And once a student has been given the label [valued, smart, slow, a smart-ass, lazy etc.], nothing the student does will ever change the teacher’s opinion/decision. So why should the student try? [The worst outcome of this is that students often begin to believe the labels they have been given. This is a terrible waste.]

For these inept teachers, discipline is kids in neat tidy rows doing seat work — with no talking, no discussion, no questioning. Order is all. Heaven forfend that a student should question why he or she was expected to complete pages and pages of math problems or pages from a French cahier.

Perpetually unhappy teachers don’t celebrate student successes but only concentrate on what the students do ‘wrong’. – I remember that if I or my fellow classmates tried to do something on our own initiative, we would usually be taken to task. — Who said we were even allowed to think  independently? And we could never suggest another way to get to the answer or provide an alternate point of view or suggest a different interpretation . — After all we weren’t ‘teachers’ so how the hell could we possibly know?

It seems to be a fact of human nature that we always remember the bad things/people over the good ones. So, it’s the incompetent (unhappy, uninspired)  teachers that the public  (the parents and grandparents) remembers. The parents and the grandparents are the people with the money and tax clout. They want the best teachers for their children but still believe that teachers are pretty much scam-artists. We still hear the point that, after all, teachers stop working at 3:30 PM and never have to work shifts and get two weeks off at Christmas and one week off for March break, and, lets not forget the biggie – two months holiday in the summer.  Teaching as a cushy job for lazy, barely competent, and greedy people.  I think that’s the greatest legacy of inept/poor/lousy teachers.

I was fortunate that I was able to keep my vision of the educator I wanted and worked to be with me throughout my career – through changes in principals, changes in Ministry of Education directives, through OSIS and De-streaming, through standardized testing. I had some wonderful guides to help me manage my way through the things that seem to clutter up an educator’s life – meetings and reports and course profiles and curriculum expectations, and changes in assessment practices. I’m thankful that I never lost sight of my goal to match my sense of what it means to be an excellent educator and the values, attitudes and beliefs that I brought to my work with students each day.

I am hopeful that those who are in the profession and those coming in to it have had excellent teachers to emulate. To follow in their footsteps is truly to touch the future.


About Authentic Vibrations

My life is about learning and personal growth. I was an educator in the public secondary system for over 33 years. I now work with women, individually and in small groups, using words and music, art and language to help them explore their individaul sense of self in ways with are authentically meaningful for each of them. I also facilitate discussions with educators at all stages of their involvement in the teaching profession to help each of us explore the meaning, value and potential of learning and teaching. It is my belief that, in working individually and in collective, we have the power to transform and evolve. In the power of the collectives which we create together is the power to create culture. As a musician, I believe that the arts have the power to change lives. Certification: CODE Model™ Coach WEL-Systems® Institute Affiliate Education: Ed. D (c) (Applied Psychology – Focus on Teaching) University of Toronto M. Ed (Curriculum Development and Design) Queen’s University (1992) B. Ed (Music, English, Elementary Education) University of Toronto (1976) Mus. Bac. (Music Education) University of Toronto (1975) RCM Grade 4 Harmony, Grade 4 History, Grade 9 Voice, Grade 10 Piano Awards: Life Membership, Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (2009)
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