I’m just putting the final touches on my preparation, because for the next 6 weeks or so from Monday, all day every day, I’ll be teaching 26 young1 physical science (physics and chemistry) teachers all they need to know about teaching. OK, that’s over-stating it a bit: they’ve mostly done science degrees, so they know the science, and they’ve done some education courses, so they know something about that. They’ve even done a few weeks of practice teaching last semester, in their minor. What my course really does is try to pull all that stuff together and translate it into some practical advice and ideas to support them in their long 9 week practice teaching session, and into the first few years of their careers. Being realistic about how many teachers return for graduate study, I also try to prepare them with some of the things they’ll need 4-5 years into their careers, and don’t even know they need yet.
This time of year always gets me thinking about whether teachers are born or made. I kind of have to hope they can be made, at least to some extent, because that’s what I’m trying to do! If they are totally born with the attributes they need to teach, and if their science study gives them the knowledge, what is my course about? I do believe there are practical things that can be passed on about the art and craft of teaching, and I also believe there are theoretical ideas2 that can be shared that are really useful to teachers in lifting them above the day-to-day grind and enabling them to continually improve as teachers.
But there also seem to be some attributes that are ‘born in’. Teachers need patience, personal security, integrity and the desire to communicate, and if a person doesn’t have those attributes, he or she is unlikely to make a very good teacher. In some of my research I interviewed groups of 4-5 high school physics students about their teachers, and what they liked about them. (Fortunately I’d chosen all good teachers for my research, so they were able to say positive things about their teachers!) The two most important issues for these students were: (1) the teacher knows what he’s3 talking about, can answer our questions, can write notes and give explanations on the board without having to copy it from the textbook or written notes (which is a horrifying reflection on some of the other teachers they must have been exposed to!) and (2) the teacher cares about us as people, knows our names and about our lives, cares about our problems and tries to make our lives easier. Basically, teachers have a fair bit of latitude to work as hard as they wish – or as little as possible – and it’s personal integrity and a sense of responsibility to the students that makes the difference.
In the final analysis, I think teachers can be made, but you have to start with the right material – young people who are mature, secure, focused and care about their students. And I suspect young people like that aren’t actually born that way either – they’re ‘made’ that way at home, and are in an on-going process of making themselves.
- Well, mostly young: they’re beginning teachers, so the majority have gone straight through university, but there are usually one or two older people who have gone back to study to get into teaching too. Their experience and input is always really valuable.
- I don’t mean high-fallutin’ theory with lots of big words and not much application in the classroom. The word ‘theory’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to look’. To me, a theory is both (a) something you use to look at the world – something that awakens you to a particular perspective on what’s going on and (b) something you look at – we all have our own theories of how things work, and looking at those, trying to understand our own understanding, is an important part of preparing to do good in the world.
- Despite my best efforts, I only found male physics teachers for that study, so they were all ‘he’.