What Makes a Great Teacher?

Boredom is the enemy of education. Students who are bored in class learn only one thing: that they are at the mercy of their instructor.
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Boredom is the enemy of education. Students who are bored in class learn only one thing: that they are at the mercy of their instructor. Part of what makes a great teacher is that he or she is engaging. Just think about it: did you ever have a teacher who was boring who you also thought was great? Of course not.

I remember being bored through most of fifth grade. It was, without a doubt, our teacher's fault. He was humorless, spoke in a monotone, and gave us daily spelling quizzes of words we'd learned in second grade: "of," "off," "here," "there." I loved school before and after, but those nine months of fifth grade were torture.

So what makes a teacher engaging? A passion for his or her subject, surely. But a great teacher must also have insight into human nature. In my experience, the best instructors inevitably possess a wry sense of humor, a knowingness that comes from having thought about their own foibles as much as they have thought about the topic they are teaching.

One man who stands out for having taught a generation of Americans to know themselves better is Eric Berne, the founder of "transactional analysis." The purpose of transactional analysis, Berne said, was to illuminate, predict and change human behavior by answering what he called "the fundamental question of social psychology: "why do people talk to each other?"

Berne noticed that most problems arise from miscommunication and that miscommunication is almost always a result of unclear or unstated expectations. People want things but pretend they don't. They may want praise or agreement or confirmation that they are right. Instead of asking for what they want, however, they play complex, transactional games. In his best-selling book Games People Play, Berne outlined some of these games (and gave them deliciously provocative titles), such as, "Now I've Got You, You Son of a Bitch," in which one person exploits the mistake of another to unleash his or her pent up fury on that person (the fury coming from childhood grievances that have nothing to do with the person or the mistake in question).

Berne called these games "rackets." A racketeer pretends to want one thing (e.g. the solution to some problem) but is really after another. Usually, it is the pleasure that comes from proving that one is right about something.

We can, Berne believed, learn to recognize the games we are playing. We can teach ourselves to see -- and be upfront about -- our own motives. Instead of trying to be right, we can actually communicate in a way that would solve our problems.

Now, back to the subject of good teaching and the problem of student boredom. The other day I sat in a classroom as a visitor and watched as a teacher bored her students. The longer I watched, the more deliberate it seemed. With all the yawning and the scribbling and the eye-rolling, the students' collective tedium couldn't have been any clearer. All she had to do to wake them up was to stop and say something like, "I'm boring you, aren't I?" But she didn't. Instead, she kept on going with her prepared lesson. Berne would have said she was playing a game with her students. He would have named it something like, "I'm No Good at This, See!"

Passionate, engaging, intellectually stimulating classroom discussion should be one of our country's highest concerns. I searched through the Columbia Teacher's College course catalogue and couldn't find a single course on how to recognize, prevent, or deal with, student boredom. (On the whole, TC's approach is highly theoretical.) We all know from our own experience, however, that students are bored every day in school (I don't think I'm the only one who's spent nine months in classroom hell). Meanwhile, as much as we hear politicians and policy makers talk about test scores, where's the concern with the student experience? Focusing on test scores is like trying to save the patient by pounding on the EKG machine. Test scores are the symptom, not the problem. We need to remember that students are people, who hate and resent being bored as much we do. In other words, we need policies to prevent boredom and promote engagement. Then test scores would rise. I think Berne would smell a giant, collective, national racket.

One piece of good news: the Gates Foundation is investing $300 million in reforming teacher education. Wouldn't it be great if some of this money went to teaching teachers about the unconscious games they often play in front of the classroom?

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