What Makes a Good Teacher

My son is taking an online Introductory Psychology Course this summer. In order to tutor him through this course, I also have been reading the text book. I am finding that a lot in psychology has changed since my major in college and masters in developmental psychology. It is much more about physiology and the brain which I find problematic and is subject for another discussion. However, I have found the personality theories and the social psychology research interesting and relevant. There are two areas of psychological research which support my workshop teachings and which are particularly relevant to the question of, “what makes a good teacher?”

The first involves the development of self-efficacy and our perception of ourselves and the second is how we form and maintain attitudes. The first one seems obvious. The findings show that those areas in which we have achieved some mastery get reinforced into the image we have of ourselves. Those areas in which we have little experience and hence little reinforcement contributes to an image we hold for ourselves that we are incompetent in those areas even though we may have the skills. So if we believe we are good teachers, it is because we have achieved some success as a teacher. What often happens in our churches is that we have parents who have never taught formally or who have never felt they have been in any type of teaching role, so they have no experience to draw upon which says that they will be good teachers. Therefore they use the only model they can find which is the teachers they had in school. Most likely their teachers relied heavily on a lecture method of teaching which does not work in our RE programs. In addition, a child with a label whose behavior is different than what the teacher is comfortable with can totally wreck a first teaching experience. For our teacher orientation, we often expend a lot of energy trying to get as many teachers as possible to attend in order to convey information about the upcoming year. Perhaps, it would be more effective to just concentrate on new teachers and tailor the orientation solely to the first teaching experience. Orientation would focus on helping the new teachers achieve some success and therefore they be more likely to volunteer again. Information to the veteran teachers could be distributed via email or snail mail.

In my Involve workshops I emphasize that the attitude of the teacher is the best predictor of whether or not they will be successful teachers. The psychologists say that attitudes are made up of three components: cognitive (our thoughts, beliefs and ideas about an attitude object), emotional (our feelings and emotions about an attitude object), and behavioral (our predisposition to act in a particular way based on the cognitive and emotional components). In order to change our behavior we have to change the thoughts, beliefs and emotions we have about the attitude object. Our attitudes about other people are formed and shaped by how we were brought up, culture, stereotypes, group associations to mention just a few. Our attitudes about the children we label are often formed by what the label implies about expected behavior. The labels bias us toward expecting certain types of behavior and teacher expectations have a lot to do with how children perform. For example, we expect a child labeled with ADD to be disruptive and that is what we get. There was a famous study demonstrating how teacher expectations affect children’s performance. One teacher was told they were getting a class of high achievers when they actually got a class of under achieving children. The other teacher was assigned the class of under achievers but was told she had the class of high achievers. The study showed that the children performed to the teacher’s expectations. The under achieving students performed well while the high achieving students performed poorly.

The attitude I promote is one based on seeing the world through the child’s eyes. This helps not to be so quick to judge behavior based on the pre-conceived beliefs we have about teaching, learning, and children, especially the children we label. But how do we change people’s attitudes? The psychologists say that when our behavior does not coincide with a strongly held belief we experience cognitive dissonance. In order to achieve harmony, we either change the behavior or the belief. For UU’s, most of us have strong beliefs associated with our seven principles. Therefore, working for the worth and dignity of every child who enters our churches should be a strong incentive for welcoming all children. I think what trips us up, are those labels. So even though we want to welcome all children, when it actually comes down to teaching them, we fear what the label implies and we expect the behavior the label implies. Seeing the world through the child’s eyes and seeing past the label to the whole child sounds good, but how do we actually do that? And how do we do that in one hour on a Sunday morning when the child is being disruptive? I was told a story recently of a school teacher who was assigned the “problem” child. The first thing she said to him when he started being difficult was, “It’s too late, I already love you.” I propose that being a good teacher is just that simple. We love the children no matter what.

Categories Tips for Inclusion for Churches | Tags: | Posted on August 16, 2008

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