What makes a great teacher?

Posted 09.12.08

The Canadian Council on Learning forecasts low literacy skills among more than half the population by 2031, while A US study has predicted that, at the current rate of loss, reading as a leisure activity will disappear in half a century.

How does our education system rank compared to other countries? We don't know because Canada doesn't track key information like class size or the number of university drop-outs.

But we do know that in Quebec one in three high school students drop out, and the province's "language police" are more interested in prosecuting small businesses than in promoting bilingualism in schools. I guess it never dawned on Quebec that if students were immersed in both languages from the early grades, the "problem" of language would disappear in a single generation.

But language is not the issue. The issue is reading. Every educator will tell you that reading is the key to knowledge. Not computers, video games, television, or other digital media.

Kids don't learn to read on their own. They learn from dedicated teachers, and it is acknowledged widely that education affects everything else of importance, from economic growth to national security and civil rights.

Why do you think China has risen so dramatically in economic clout?

That country may have awful living and working conditions, but their educational standards are extremely high, and the population understands that a solid education is the key to improving their lives.

So how about Canada? Are we producing enough teachers who will set high goals, stretch the boundaries to accommodate every student, plumb every resource, serve as sterling examples of the kind of values we need in future leaders?

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, predicts, "Education will be oriented toward careers and worldly matters, and its former goal of producing learned and responsible citizens will be completely gone."

Why should we care? Because the greatest impact on economic development comes from knowledge workers, the "creative class" of programmers, artists, musicians, doctors and lawyers, as described by Richard Florida, economic theorist.

Joe Klein, chancellor of the NYC Department of Education, defines three qualities of a good teacher: the kids feel you care, the ability to engage the students, and knowing your subject matter.

It's sometimes thought that teaching is a profession you fall into because you don't have the motivation, high grades, or talents to excel in other fields.

I'd like to dispel that with two wonderful examples of teachers who are entering the classroom this fall.

Ali Najak earned his BBA from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2004, specializing in Marketing. After graduation he worked for an online market research company serving Fortune 500 companies, but decided that wasn't the career path he wanted.

"I loved working with numbers and being creative, but I didn't feel I was being very productive in a social sense."

Having worked at a camp for blind kids, a teacher in a religious education centre, and a recruiter for Laurier, where he visited high schools across the province, he realized it was these experiences that he enjoyed the most.

Ali feels teaching can be a vehicle for change, empowering students to believe in themselves and make a positive difference in the world.

"I knew for sure that teaching was for me after my assignment at an inner city high school in Toronto. While it's fantastic to see all students succeed, the one thing that really makes this a profession I want to pursue is seeing the students who are seen as 'bad students' or 'at risk' actually become successful, and knowing you played a small part in that.

"I felt that I had built some great relationships with these students and given more time I think I could have made a difference in their lives, giving them some of the resources they need to succeed in whatever they wished to pursue after high school."

Thousands of miles away, in Florida, Joy Russo is teaching a grade five class this fall. A beautiful young woman who had a modeling career while she was still in high school, Joy was tapped by a local TV station to handle on-air interviews while she was attending college. A career in the spotlight seemed to be in her future.

But Joy has always wanted to be a teacher, and she has doggedly pursued this. She will earn her BA. in Education in December, and has already been accepted into the Masters' program.

Why did she select teaching elementary school over the glamorous life of a model and TV personality?

"I chose to pursue education because it is such a rewarding career. I have so much to share with my students and hopefully I can make a difference in each of their lives."

Let's hope there are more young people entering the teaching profession with this kind of motivation.

Bobbi Graham's website has free pages and many resources for writers, publishers, and cat-lovers. Go to www.SimonTeakettle.com, and make sure you read Terzo's blog.

Copyright © 2008 Barbara Floria Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/09.08