Can Good Teaching Be Taught?

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The New York Times recently published a think piece that posed the question: "Can good teaching be taught?" It's a thoughtful probe into the difficulties of being a teacher and it's at once hopeful and heartbreaking. The teachers and administrators in the article struggle against myriad challenges including red tape, convoluted hierarchies, apathetic fellow teachers and students with behavioral issues, learning disabilities and socioeconomic disadvantages. Because this is a conversation worth having, we thought we'd weigh in and offer our take. And here it is — we believe you can learn to be a great teacher. Here's why.

What a Degree in Education Can Teach You

For the most part, the educational requirements for becoming a teacher are rigorous. Teachers must complete a 4-year bachelor's degree in the field, a teacher prep course (sometimes these are combined), many hours of supervised real-world teaching and, oftentimes, a master's degree. In an undergraduate program, teachers learn fundamentals like:
  • Learning styles. Every child has a different learning style. Adapting to and  accommodating these varying styles is one of the biggest challenges of being a classroom teacher.
  • Gamification. Figuring out how to meet children on their level is tough. Gamification (the art of turning learning into a game) is one of the best tools we have to reach kids and break up the monotony of instruction.
  • Childhood development. Teaching programs often introduce a bit of psychology into the curriculum, especially where it concerns the development of students. Understanding students' needs, emotional intelligence and learning capabilities based on their development can go a long way toward becoming a good teacher.
  • Managing a classroom. Establishing authority and rules in the classroom is important; it helps with disciplinary problems and makes students more open to learning.
Of course, these are all theoretical skills and, while necessary, they don't alone make for a good teacher. Experience can.

What Practicums Can Teach You
A practicum, the real-world, supervised portion of a teaching program, is where good teachers are forged. You have a chance to put all those theories you learned in the classroom to use and you can start to get a feel for the job. In a practicum, teachers have the opportunity to:
  • Prepare lesson plans.
  • Be in a real classroom.
  • Learn from a working teacher.
  • Interact with children in a learning environment.
Taking these opportunities and using them to their fullest can be the turning point between mediocre and truly making a difference as a teacher.

What a Degree Might Not Teach You
The degree program and practicum are essential steps to becoming an impactful teacher, but they are just one part of the equation. There is a wide range of factors that affect your abilities in the classroom:
  • Working within the system. Many a great teacher has walked away because of systemic problems like lack of funding, testing requirements that don't make sense and no support from school administration. Good teachers are able to take a bifocal view: they understand the wider problems but can keep their focus on the children in front of them every day.
  • Leadership. Good teachers become role models in their students' lives and that means leading by example. Can you keep your cool under pressure? Can you treat everyone with equal respect? Can you command authority in the classroom?
  • Adaptability. Circumstances change all the time within a school and good teachers know how to adapt to them. Sometimes that means throwing in the towel on one way of doing things and sometimes that means dying on the right hills. Knowing the difference is key.
  • Organization. With 6,000 problems coming at you at once, things can get overwhelming fast. Staying organized can keep things from falling through the cracks and, more importantly, help you keep your sanity.
Here's the good news — none of these skills are magical. You don't need to be born with them. With hard work and no small amount of enthusiasm, anyone can become a great teacher and make a huge difference in the lives of generations of children.
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