Good Teaching Is Getting Through to People

In her new blog feature called Teaching Tuesday, novelist and professor Cathy Day shared her technique for learning students’ names on the first day of class. I do something similar: I fill out a classroom seating map as my students go around the room on the first day introducing themselves with their names, hometowns, and something else. Sometimes I ask something kind of boring, like “why did you decide to take this class,” but in a required class like Composition, I usually ask them to share something interesting about themselves that we wouldn’t know by looking at them. Since that, on a first day, is basically everything, students can share what they wish to share.

I definitely learn names more quickly when students say quirky things. Like the guy in my Comp class this semester who said he’s allergic to cheap shoes. I’m still thinking about that one.

I used to be able to learn all the names on the first day, but now I usually need two class periods. Yet another sign of aging brain!

What I was really struck by in Day’s post, however, was this comment at the end:

being a good teacher isn’t just about your syllabus, how smart you are, how knowledgeable, how you’re perceived in your discipline. It’s about whether or not you have the ability to get through to people.

Getting through to people. That’s really what good teachers do in the classroom.

We don’t teach content: we teach people. People who want to know if we’re someone they want to learn from. The foundation of good teaching is being the kind of person students want to learn from.

Yet this isn’t something we’re supposed to talk about or even acknowledge–and it certainly isn’t something we’re supposed to cultivate.

Being “fun” or being “popular” with students puts you on the fast track to being “that” teacher. You know, the one who gives out A’s. The one who lets students slide. The one who doesn’t have high expectations.

I used to think comments like that–which I’ve heard plenty of–stemmed from professional jealousy, but now I think they stem as much from a fundamental misunderstanding of what teaching and learning means. Common sense tells us that we learn better when we feel capable of learning, when someone we respect takes an interest in our growth, when we are excited and full of wonder about a subject and can share that excitement and wonder with others. Good learning is about connection and community.

Our own personal experiences give us plenty of examples that confirm the importance of those connections. I hated science in high school and nearly flunked out of Biology and Chemistry. And then somehow I pulled an A in Physics, which was so much harder as well as dependent upon higher math skills that I didn’t possess. But I had a remarkable teacher who knew how to get through to people. I worked harder in his class than I had ever worked in a Science class. Not because I was passionate about the subject matter, but because he was and because he made me feel like I could learn.

I wonder if the reason we downplay the importance of “the ability to get through to people” is because we can’t measure it. We know it when we see it; we feel it when we’re in that kind of classroom. There is a different energy and quality of attention at work in such classrooms. But I can’t rate it on a rubric. I can’t give a pre-test and post-test for it.  

But I know it’s the key to the kind of classrooms my students want to create.

First, they have to be the kind of person students want to learn from.

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5 thoughts on “Good Teaching Is Getting Through to People

  1. I love this. “We don’t teach content; we teach people.” Boom shock-a-locka. I can think of at least 39 teachers that need this reminder/pounded into their head. I used to have this misconception of teachers..that they only operated from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm every day, and then after that, they just crawled under the desk and slept until 8:00 am the next day. I didn’t think they had lives outside the classroom. Like…seeing them at the grocery store wearing jeans was weird. I wanted to tell them to get back to the school and never leave. But then I grew up, and I realized, “Hey! They’re human just like me.” So my question is, why can’t those 39 teachers think that, too? Why can’t they look at me and say, “I think I will teach YOU today, not English, but YOU”? There will be days where I want to crawl under my desk and die, but I hope I will always remember that I’m teaching tiny humans.
    Also, I admittedly always wanted to be “that” teacher. The one that was cool with pretty hair and took her shoes off to teach and had lamps instead of fluorescent lighting and was fun and easy (not in the sexual sense…oh Lord). What is more important is communication and getting through to people. Making things relevant, connecting, showing that you truly care about what they are saying or writing will make me a better version of “that” teacher. (And hopefully I will also have pretty hairs and pretty lamps.)

  2. LOL, Nikki. Love your pretty hair and lamps. Too funny. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the content we’re responsible for teaching. Obviously, I love my field and I want everyone else to be as passionate about it as I am. In order to do that, I’ve got to know how to get through to people. And if my students aren’t ready or interested in learning about English from me, I still want to have some important things to teach them about the wonderful possibilities of the world and their place in it.

  3. Agree 100%. It definitely is about the relationship you foster with a student. They won’t all love you, that’s fine – but they should all know that you care. Students deff. can kick back from learning all based on the personality of the teacher. And the opposite. Mutual respect is huge. Has to go both ways.

    Great post!

    • Thank for commenting, Kate! I’m working on another post about how to build relationships–especially with the students who don’t want anything to do with you. I have taught my share of those. I definitely found that students would work so much harder in my class if I had done the work of building that relationship.

      • It’s so true. I have found that in my experience as well. I am looking forward to your new post! It is work to build it, but that’s why we are teaching, right? To reach kids??? 🙂 I always tell students who ask me about teaching some day – It’s fine if you love your content area, but you have to like kids, too!

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