Excerpt from:  "How To Become the Teacher Who Makes the Difference - An Anti-Romantic Theory of Pedagogy: Principles, not Personalities." Chapter in Making a Teacher Eternal: Scholars Describe the Teacher Who Made a Difference. Vol. 6 of the book series Adolescence and Education, eds. Frank Pajares and Tim Urdan. InfoAge Publishers, 2008.


Caveats aside, it may seem unfair that in light of the low pay and long hours, being a good teacher is at least as difficult as being a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon. Unfair or not, however, “it is,” to quote my students, “what it is.”(This zippy nugget of wisdom is a recent addition to undergraduate small-talk that I find persistently amusing, especially since it is usually uttered in the tone of one who has just untangled a major conundrum of life.)  Anyone who wishes to become the teacher who makes the difference must begin by recognizing that good teaching is much harder than good scholarship (because it requires good scholarship, and much more).  This is another front on which the default legitimacy that our culture bestows on charisma and passion is misleading.  Many people tend automatically to assume that personally charismatic, pedagogically sexy, and emotively passionate teachers must be good teachers, but the truth is that charisma, sexiness, and passion in teaching, just as in politics, can blind the audience—or a room full of students—to a multitude of sins. Teachers who know how to turn on the charm are not thereby bad teachers, but neither are they thereby good teachers.  Every teacher who has charm should use it, but only as a tool that s/he has under full control, not as a substitute for hard thinking about pedagogical principles. The teacher who wishes to make the difference soon learns by experience that good teaching is often rewarding and joyful, but seldom easy. Why is this so?


Resistance From Popular Culture

Teaching is hard, in the first place, because the skills that most teachers work hard to help their students learn generally cut across the grain of popular culture that has swaddled our students in its embrace since their birth. On the intellectual front, teachers help students develop skills of critical thinking, historical and political analysis, close observation and close reading, computation and calculation, effective use of evidence, logical argumentation, and skepticism about common sense versions of complicated issues. On the personal front, teachers help students develop the ethical skills of empathy, honesty, fairness, kindness, self-control, and compassion. The trouble that teachers constantly run into is that what they do on both of these fronts almost always positions them as challengers of the commonplace truths that students have heard all of their lives. In the Western world generally, and especially in America, market values, spin politics, and the mindset of advertising manipulations now saturate society so deeply that when teachers help students develop the kinds of intellectual and ethical skills I have just described, one common consequence is that teachers and their strange skills of analysis and skepticism get put on the defensive, while students scramble to retain their grip on the familiar notions that they never before knew were vulnerable to challenge. Skepticism about common sense? “Why, for pete’s sake? Common sense is my best friend.” Kindness and compassion as everyday principles of conduct? “Only in Christmas movies and Thanksgiving Day turkey dinner lines at homeless shelters. Everyday life is too hard and too harsh.” To many students, a binding, practical commitment to ethical virtues will seem too demanding, except, of course, as a distant ideal possessing neither authority nor bite. How can teaching not be hard when it challenges students to reconsider every verity that they thought was founded on bedrock?


Teachers Point, Students Squint

Teaching is hard, in the second place, because the teacher is always in the position of trying to describe the

compelling excitement of objects and ideas that students, try as they might, simply cannot at first bring into focus. They squint, they cock their heads, they peer into the mist, and they often wonder half-angrily if their teacher just isn’t crazy at worst or eccentric at best. Much teaching has the frustrating character of the color-sighted person or the hearing person trying to explain the beauty of sunsets or symphonies to persons who are color-blind or deaf. The only way this dynamic can work is for the student to have sufficient trust in the teacher to believe that, in time and under the teacher’s direction, s/he will also come to see the colors and sounds that so animate the teacher’s voice, countenance, and manner.


Fear of Failure

Teaching is hard, in the third place, because failure on the part of the students is always real, because students always sense that the possibility of failure is real, and because a huge part of every teacher’s job is not the importation into the student’s mind of disciplinary content, which is comparatively easy, but the much more difficult job of supporting learning by also supporting the real risks that students must take in the face of failure. As snails shrink from sun and salt, students shrink from failure. This is a pedagogical problem because students set their thermostat for failure dysfunctionally low—”B”s are the new “C”s; “A”s are the new norm—but a truth that everyone already knows about human beings in general is that their perceptions generally drive their behavior more directly than do facts. The fact that there is no growth without risking failure is not a fact that, by itself, powerfully motivates students to override their perception that failure—looking bad or scoring low—is a catastrophe. The X-factor, the agent in whose absence students can seldom be persuaded to risk sun and salt, is the teacher. The teacher is often the single most crucial influence in the student’s willingness to take the risks that real learning requires. The teacher must model the complex truth that when real learning occurs, failure is inevitable for everyone at some points on the learning curve, but that this sort of failure is never terminal, and, in the long run, doesn’t really detract from eventual success. The great home run hitters always have more strikeouts than ordinary players, but no one remembers or cares about their strikeouts.


Specialist Education vs. Liberal Education

Teaching is hard, in the fourth place, because teachers are specialists in disciplinary information and methodology but are often confused by a tension that they feel between their strong commitment to cover as much disciplinary territory as possible and their deep intuition that some of their most important work is not disciplinary at all.  It is natural for students to be confused about this tension, but it can be pedagogically terrible when teachers are also confused about this tension. Teachers’ confusion is clearly visible, however, when they list liberal arts learning objectives on their syllabi—critical thinking, concern for justice, imaginative resourcefulness, and so on—but then do not know how to make these objectives show up as accountable learning aims in their courses’ tests or paper assignments. Students mostly do not have an educational agenda; they are too used to supposing that education is “giving the teacher what s/he wants.” The task of articulating the relationship between disciplinary content and liberalarts aims is the teacher’s job, and a great many teachers are not sure how to perform this difficult task.


Can Opener Education

Teaching is hard, in the fifth place, because some teachers and almost all students—not to mention students’

parents—tend to define and value education in instrumental terms, while many teachers try to persuade students to value their education in terms of self-development and human excellence. Thus teachers and students often talk past each other, sometimes without realizing it, and, in any event, often employ two incommensurate sets of value that tend to fracture educational discourse. What makes teaching even harder, however, is when teachers share students’ confusion, and when teachers also advocate education in mostly instrumental terms, as if education were a kind of can opener for getting at the world’s goodies, and as if the difference between a good education and a poor education were to be measured by the number of bells and whistles on the can opener, or as if the value of the can opener were synonymous with the academic status of the manufacturer’s brand name. “So your can opener is made by Harvard! It must be a really good can opener!” When teachers are not clear about the difference between instrumental and liberal education, then glib teaching becomes very easy and good teaching becomes very hard.


The Difficulty of Teaching Yourself

Teaching is hard, in the sixth place, because the teacher can never escape the reality that s/he is not only

teaching a discipline and not only teaching general intellectual and ethical skills, but is also teaching himself or herself. Teaching is a highly complicated balancing act that requires great attentiveness, great self-awareness, a deep sense of nuanced rhetoric and self-presentation, and a vast amount of energy to pull of with conviction, liveliness, and effectiveness. When I say that teachers can never evade teaching themselves, I am being neither hyperbolic nor metaphoric. Every teacher models his or her distinctive way of dealing with information, his or her distinctive way of dealing with ideas, and most of all his or her distinctive way of dealing with students. It is not possible for a teacher not to model himself or herself, and, given that students years after graduation seldom report being able to recall anything from distant class content but often report surprisingly vivid recollections of their teachers’ self-presentation—manner of speech, body language, passions, interests, style of dress, jokes, and so on—it follows that the lesson of himself or herself that the teacher models sticks. There are at least two plain but serious ethical and intellectual implications that follow. First, when the memory of class content disappears but the memory of the teacher remains vivid, then whatever the teacher has modeled in the way of ethical virtues such as charity, civility, respect, and fairness; or what the teacher has modeled in the way of intellectual virtues such as lucidity of argument or skillful use of evidence may be the deepest and most formative lessons of the student’s experience, even though the teacher concentrating almost exclusively on disciplinary content may not only have not been concerned about what he or she was modeling, but may not even have recognized that s/he should have been concerned about modeling. Second, just as students shrink from the sun and salt of perceived failure, many teachers shrink from thinking about teaching-as-modeling because it makes them feel too vulnerable, and, perhaps, inadequate, but this issue cannot be dodged. Teachers teach at least as much by modeling as by explaining. The teacher who squirms away from thinking how to handle this complex feature of teaching is like a surgeon who wants to perform great operations but refuses to face up to the fact that the sight of blood makes him faint.

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