What is the most important thing (or character trait) a teacher must have?

Peter Greene has thought about this for a long time.

He doesn’t think the answer is high grades, nor a side-arm, nor even deep content knowledge (though the latter is required, but not itself the number 1 requirement).

He thinks it’s the deep desire to do the job.

I generally agree with Peter on most things, but I am not so sure about this, since school boards and administrators around the nation have been able to cause literally millions of bright, energetic, committed young people to quit the teaching jobs in despair and humiliation after failing in an increasingly insane school environment in which the teachers feel they have no control.

And so their desire to do the job slowly or catastrophically disappears. And they quit, or get fired. See https://marcolearning.com/teacher-turnover-rate-by-state/ and https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2018/05/the-rising-number-of-us-teachers.html?m=1


Perhaps the most

Here is his column:

How Much Does Knowledge Matter For Teaching

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an editorial that was picked up and run in my region, raising a question about the “most important component of teaching.”

The actual issue was the substitute shortage (which I can report, via the experiences of the Board of Directors is severe–they have never had a sub when their kindergarten teacher is absent, but are just shunted into the other K teachers). Ohio has shifted to their own version of a warm body substitute law; in Ohio, if you have a college degree, you can apply for a subject-specific substitute license. IOW, if you have a BA in English, you can be an English class substitute in Ohio. 

Pennsylvania has loosened up the rules as well, including letting near-graduated teacher program students sub and allowing retirees to sub without having to give up pension payments (though no retiree I know, including me, has gotten a call from a district to step in). This measure would loosen things up more. But what raised the question is part of the Post-Gazette’s rationale:

Knowledge of the subject matter is the most important component of teaching.

Is it? And if not, what is?

I am a huge believer in the importance of subject matter knowledge. When you are standing in a classroom, there is no substitute for knowing what the hell you’re talking about. It helps enormously with classroom management and earning the respect of your students (yes, you have to earn that). It helps you stay fast on your feet and adapt to whatever kind of teachable moment presents itself. 

I’m not saying you have to be the world’s foremost expert, nor is your job to strut your stuff as the smartest person in the room. But a teacher who plans to get by by just following the textbook makes me cringe. It’s the difference between being a guide who knows the paved path to the destination, but is stumped if anyone takes one step off the asphalt, and a guide who knows every part of the territory, on the path and off, and can guide you to any spot from any other spot. I want a classroom with the latter.

But teaching also involves being able to convey that knowledge you have. Everyone knows (and some have experienced) the cliche of the person who’s really smart but can’t actually explain what they know to anyone else. You can’t be a good guide if you arrived at the destination with no idea how you got there and the only advice you can offer others is to keep hollering, “Well, just go to the place!” You have to be able to break the trip into comprehensible pieces.

And that means you have to understand your audience and read the room. You have to be able to communicate with the young humans that you are supposed to be teaching. For the younger students in particular this means some exceptional communication and empathic skills are required of teachers. If you can’t read the room, every teachable moment will fly right past you and every opportunity will be lost. 

And you have to be in charge, but not a tyrant. You have to maintain the safe learning space, which means all those people skills have to be harnessed in service of balancing all the needs in front of you.

Yes, there are plenty of pieces of conventional wisdom that dance around this issue.

“I want them to love learning.” And that’s absolutely the important goal, and you can only achieve it if you know something to teach them and are able to do so. 

“We teach students, not subjects.” Sure. What do you teach them. I get the point of this one, that we should not get so caught up in our material that we get things backward and think that the students are there to serve the content instead of vice versa. But we still have to teach the students something.

“Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” Honestly, I don’t know a teacher who still sticks closely to the sage model and just stands up there bloviating away the days, but it would be a lousy model to follow. But it’s a serious mistake to over-correct into the 

“We’re all just here to learn together and I’m just one more learner and they teach me as much as I teach them.” If you don’t know more about what you’re teaching than your students do, just go home. You are the grown up adult specialist. That is the gig. If you don’t know more than the students, if you are not the expert guide on the learning journey, then what exactly are the taxpayers paying you for? Your heart can be as big as all outdoors, but your brain needs to be full, too. 

None of this means you have to be an all-knowing teacherbot who is the supreme authority on all matters, just standing in the classroom spewing forth your infallible wisdom. 

All of this is a lot of work, and constant work because teaching is about balancing a whole bunch of things and the eight is always shifting so you can never ever get into a stance and think, “Well, I can just lock this down exactly here.” 

Which means on top of all the rest, you have to want to do the job. You have to want to succeed, to do everything that’s called for. You have to want to teach, not just grab a paycheck or add a line on your resume. You have to give a shit. You have to care.

So I’m torn, because in my mind, almost everything on the list rests on knowing your content. Except the desire to do the job. But of the two, content knowledge is the element that can be learned. I don’t know how to teach you to give a shit about teaching, but I know lots of ways for you to learn the content so that you can do the job. 

So I think I have to put knowledge of subject matter at #2, right behind “Want to do the job.” Which is why I suspect the Ohio idea won’t help much, just like most of these bar-lowering warm-body-recruiting ideas aren’t helping all that much. It’s easy to find people with college degrees and warm bodies, but the people who want to teach and really care about the work are already there. If you are a policy maker (or newspaper publisher) who imagines that there are millions of folks just dying to teach and the only thing holding them back is some paperwork, then you have some subject matter knowledge problems of your own.

Published in: on November 30, 2022 at 4:23 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. I thought in public schools for 30 years and retired in 2005, 2 years of subbing, then 12 years in a middle school teaching what they call English, and the last 16 teaching more English classes and for a few years one journalism class at the high school level. The child poverty rate in one of the middle schools and the high school was 70% or higher. The community around those two schools were basically controlled by multi generational, violent youth gangs. Even the local police didn’t patrol those streets after dark. And when school was in session, police showed up every day to help maintain control and stop gang wars rom breaking out at lunch.

    My first day on the job (the first middle school) the principal, a Korean War combat vet, told us teachers to never leave the campus on foot to take a walk, because if we vanished, even our bodies might never be found.

    For a teacher to teach in that challenging environment, the first step toward achieving that goal is the ability to read your classroom and manage it. When I saw “read”, I’m talking about reading body language first, and then knowing how to manage the learning environment in each class so children that are there to learn may learn.

    Each class is different. When I taught the journalism class (one period a day for 7 years near the end of my 30) and was the faculty advisor for the student managed and produced monthly high school newspaper, managing that class was a no brainer. The student editors, mostly seniors, did that job and all I had to do is teach a classroom full of highly motivated students that wanted to be there.

    But in the four English classes, it was a different story. One class might be easy to manage with few if any challenges while another class might be the wild west with a few students challenging the teacher every day.

    In that environment, knowing the subject of the class you taught came 2nd. If you can’t control the learning environment, then you cannot teach.

    I knew what it was like to be a child growing up in poverty because I was one of them.

    OI knew what it was like to grow up with parents that didn’t have a high school education, because I was one of those kids.

    I knew what it was like to grow up with a serious learning disability, because I was one of those children.

    I knew what street gangs were like because my older brother belonged to one. Before he died illiterate at 64, from too much booze, tobacco and drugs, my tattoo covered brother Richard (I called him DiDi) spent 15 years of his life in the slammer for a variety of crimes. His fellow inmates and the people he worked with called him El Caballo, The Horse.

    That’s why I felt right at home in the public schools where I taught.

    But because my BA degree was in journalism, and my MFA only focused on improving my writing and studying 20th century American Authors like Hemmingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, and I didn’t have a BA in English, I was forced by some elected officials who voted on legislation that required me to prove I knew English by taking and passing more than 20 unites of college graduate level English classes.

    Yet, according to the usual useless annual standardized tests, the students I taught, year after year, outscored every other student in the district at the same grade level for increasing their reading comprehension and writing abilities.

    Did anyone ever want to know how I managed classes and taught, for my students to achieve those improvements year after year for as long as the district kept records like that?

    No, not once! Instead, admisntration kept forcing us to teach the way they wanted us to teach, which I ignored under pressure from administration until I retired.

    I was told by one VP (he said he’d deny it if I ever said he warned me) that the district administrators were afraid of me but wanted to get rid of me somehow. Maybe because I stood up to them and fought back so I could manage and teach my students they way I wanted to teach them, or maybe because I’m a former US Marine and combat vet.

    I repeat, the most important skill a teacher must have is the ability to manage their classrooms. Knowing the subject comes 2nd in my book and can always be learned.

    The powers that be are never going to get that combination if they keep dumbing down what it takes to be a teacher and refuses to stop micromanaging public education.


  2. Regarding me previous comment, please ignore my typos. I will not apologize for not spending another half hour proofing my comment. I type fast and correct what I can, and the little comment window is too small to keep scrolling back and forth revising.

    However, when it comes to one of the books I write and publish, I edit and revise repeatedly with help from Pro Writing Aid before I share each chapter with one of the four critique groups I belong to, often spending several hours a chapter. The last step is to hire an editor to go through the manuscript one last time before it’s published.

    If I had to do that for every comment I’ve posted, I’d never leave any comments.


  3. When I read the title of this piece, I immediately thought “patience.” But as I read on, all kinds of things bubbled up because this question leads to an irrelevant listicle of the many, many traits needed to do the job of teaching well.

    Fundamentally, I wanted of course to have a job through which I could support myself but beyond that I wanted to do something I thought was “important,” not just to me but to the broader context. I won’t go down the rabbit hole of addressing the question “How important?” but just important to society. Jobs doing things that were of minimal importance were not attractive to me and my proudest moments were when students came back to me long after graduation to tell me how important my impact upon them on them was down the road.


  4. Asking for the one most important attribute creates an unnecessary conundrum. Top five might work as it is a blend of character traits/skills that are absolutely required. Often these are inseparable and always need to be proportionally fine-tuned for each grade level, each class, and even each individual student.

    TOP 5
    Subject area knowledge/expertise
    Clear, effective, and age-appropriate communication skills
    Understanding of/empathy for children/adolescents
    Conscientious work ethic
    Fair but firm management
    Confidence born of experience


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