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Great Teachers: Made or Found?

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Chris practices free writing which often produces humorous or introspective results with practical applications to living life more fully.

Sandy with our sons Scott (left) and Dan on her final day of teaching before retirement in 2007.
Sandy with our sons Scott (left) and Dan on her final day of teaching before retirement in 2007. | Source

"Effective teachers need to be mined out of the larger population. Effective teachers have the innate qualities of passion, desire for knowledge and the ability to communicate. These individuals need to be found and nurtured to do what nature has equipped them to do, and that is to teach." cm

What Will Actually Work?

Next time you are at a dinner party, subtly steer the topic of conversation toward public education. There will be no awkward silences for the rest of that evening. Although there may be some strained relationships. Everyone knows there is a problem and everyone seems to have a personal, favorite solution. What is the solution for U.S. public Education? What will actually work?

The Best Teacher I Have Ever Known

I received a B.A. in Biblical Education. That is a long way from public school education, but it gave me a place from which to observe what was going on in the system as my children grew. In the early nineties, my wife decided to go back to school and complete her education. She chose teaching to be the profession which she would pursue.


As a result of observing my wife as a teacher, I have discovered three essential qualities of effective teachers.

Sandy and son Dan.  Whatever they're doing, it's related to science.
Sandy and son Dan. Whatever they're doing, it's related to science. | Source

Passion and Enthusiasm for Teaching and for What is Being Taught

My first lesson about education came from observing my wife’s attitude toward some of the courses she was required to take. She despised education courses. This caused me concern at first, because she supposedly wanted to be a teacher. But then I understood why she had such a negative attitude toward these classes. They were dry, boring and did nothing but teach theory. My wife wanted to be a science teacher with a passion. She wanted to take Science classes where she would learn about astronomy, geology (her favorite), meteorology and chemistry. Whenever she was told she had to take a certain education course as a prerequisite to a particular science course, she pursued the department heads until she got her way. I just sat back and laughed as they tried to take her on. How hilarious. She graduated in 1995 and began teaching that same fall.

Sandy and son Scott on family "Science" vacation in Newfoundland
Sandy and son Scott on family "Science" vacation in Newfoundland | Source

For twelve years, Sandy excelled at teaching according to anyone’s standard. Students wanted her classes, parents wanted their children in her classes. What age, you ask, did she teach? She taught Eighth grade. That’s right, she chose to teach, liked to teach, passionately taught thirteen and fourteen year old intra-pubertal, early teens. These are the kids who have trouble deciding whether to go to the school dance to see that hot guy or girl or stay home and play with legos or Barbie Dolls. It’s a tough age for everybody involved. And her students sensed that she genuinely liked what she was doing as a teacher. She was enthusiastic about the act of teaching as well as about the subjects she taught. That is the first thing I learned as an observer. The kids know if their teachers genuinely love what they do and what they teach.

Thorough Knowledge of the Subject Being Taught

I continued my observations. Sandy didn’t stop learning after college. She checked out every book in our public library on the subjects she taught, and she read them. Family vacations became science field trips, something that is a valued memory and a source of good humor for my sons and me to this very day. Students know if a teacher has a firm grasp of the subjects they teach. And if the teacher doesn’t care enough to continue educating themselves, how can we expect students to care about learning from them?

Sandy and her 2006 class on Glacial Geology Field Trip.  The class is on top of a 250 foot high Terminal Glacial Moraine overlooking Lake Michigan.
Sandy and her 2006 class on Glacial Geology Field Trip. The class is on top of a 250 foot high Terminal Glacial Moraine overlooking Lake Michigan. | Source

Glacial Geology Fieldtrip

Definitions of glacial geology terms

The following glacial features and actions were observed and/or discussed in the field. The list is not complete because I am making it from memory and I'm getting old.

  • Kame
  • Esker
  • Drumlin
  • Crevasse
  • Crevasse Filling
  • Terminal Moraine
  • End Moraine
  • Lateral Moraine
  • Medial Moraine
  • Calving
  • Kettle Lake
  • Erratic
  • Plucking
  • Uplift
  • Perched Dunes

Source

The Ability to Effectively Communicate to the Appropriate Age Group

Then I observed Sandy actually communicating knowledge to her students. She had eager learners because they were caught up in her enthusiasm and trusted her knowledge. Sandy did lecture sometimes, but everything was reinforced and illustrated with hands on projects that actually meant something. Her room looked as it should have looked, like a science classroom. Depending on the science unit being studied, the room was equipped with the appropriate supplies and materials to do and to discover. Her geology unit was the high point of each school year. We lived, and I still do live, in Northern Michigan. Glaciers covered this area 12,000 years ago and left their imprints here which are still observable to this day. So Sandy took all one hundred fifty of her students out into Leelanau County, Michigan to observe the glacial geology of the area. In order to make this a highly educational experience, she first went out with two geologists from our area who showed her the different land forms left behind by glaciers that once towered from a half mile to two and a half miles high. It wasn’t actually one field trip, but five, spread out over five days. Students anticipated the field trip from their first day in eighth grade. Parents were eager to go, even people who did not have children in Sandy’s class or had no children at all, wanted to go. The Superintendent of schools went along one year. The field trip actually encapsulated all three of the essential elements of an effective teacher that I have shared, which are genuine enthusiasm, thorough knowledge and effective communication.

What Is the Solution

How do we work this into our schools? What we can do is to begin recruiting potentially effective teachers from among high school seniors and junior college students. With the aid of the current teaching staffs, promising students, along with their parents could be brought together with college representatives to discuss the possibility of a future in the teaching profession. It might be similar to what happens now with high school athletes being recruited by colleges and universities. Part of the criteria would be the three observations I have presented about effective teachers. It is my opinion that effective teachers need to be mined out of the larger population. Effective teachers have the innate qualities of passion, desire for knowledge and the ability to communicate. These individuals need to be found and nurtured to do what nature has equipped them to do, and that is to teach. We need to pay our effective teachers well, but simply dangling a big paycheck out there will only attract more of the same passionless, unknowledgeable and ineffective communicators that we have now. But this only deals with half the issue. I believe that the education programs of many colleges and universities are in as bad or worse shape than public schools.

Is there Hope?

Is public education in the United States beyond hope? I say no. It could only be considered hopeless if there had never been a successful teacher in the system. But there are effective teachers. If they can do it, then it should be able to be duplicated and, in time, made the norm for teachers in public schools.

Sandy Mills May 11, 1962 to April 1, 2008

It is only fair to you the reader for me to explain what has happened in reference to my wife, this awesome teacher, mother and wife. Three years after she began teaching she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She continued teaching for nine more years as she went through the various cancer treatments of which most of us are familiar. On April 1, 2008 she passed away and has been sorely missed by her family, friends, coworkers and students.

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