What is a good teacher? How do you recognize that rare individual? One of the problems Bill and Melinda Gates have had in making grants for education reform through their billion-dollar foundation is that no one seems to know what makes a good teacher. Indeed, Gates stated: “The single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching.” But no one could tell him what made a good teacher. But since I spent 12 years — 1932 to 1944 — in public schools, I think I have a good idea of what a good teacher is, and I wish to pass on to Bill and Melinda and the coming generation of teachers some of the wisdom I have acquired.
Who were the good teachers in my own experience as a public school student? There were a few, not many, that I can remember. My first and second grade teachers were good because they taught everyone in their classes how to read. We were taught to read by phonics. We were also taught penmanship, how to hold the writing instrument correctly, and we were taught arithmetic mainly through rote memorization. In other words they did not permit us to develop bad habits. And everything they taught we would be able to use for the rest of our lives. Nothing we had been taught had to be later unlearned.
They were middle-aged women with years of experience and they were helped greatly by the classroom configuration. We sat in rows behind desks bolted to the floor. There were no distractions in the room. The walls were bare with only a portrait of George Washington hanging on one of the walls. The teacher was the focus of attention, and she was able to conduct the class from the front of the room, frequently using the chalk board. Her authority was unquestioned and respected, you didn’t dare speak out of turn, and you did not litter the room. She did not have to be a great teacher, but as long as she could teach the basics competently, she was a good teacher.
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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)