My students often have told me stories. Stories about other teachers. Mostly stories about those they consider “bad” teachers or “unfair” teachers. Why they do this, I’m not sure. Perhaps they feel safe with me; perhaps they appreciate the outrage I feel on their behalf. Perhaps it’s just because I listen.
For instance: In an English 101 class (freshman writing), we were group critiquing rough drafts of first essays. One student shared that she really had no idea of how good or bad her essays were because her high school English teacher had never graded one. The student had never received criticism before, either, she said, because this teacher assigned essays, collected the essays and then just gave the student a grade.
This wasn’t just supposition on my student’s part; apparently, a fellow student of hers had actually put this to the test. The student had turned in an essay that was all one word (Essay, essay, essay, etc.).
He got a B.
Another student told the story of a college math instructor who runs his class like an e-course. The students enter class, sit down at their computers, pull up an “instructional” chapter and read it, do a test, print the test and give it to the teacher to grade. If they pass, they move on to the next chapter; if they don’t pass, they do it again.
Not once has the instructor instructed.
Then there’s the student who joined my English 101 face-to-face class, having dropped her online class because students simply had three writing assignments per week — no instruction, no discussion, no critical thinking or criticism. She said she joined my class because she actually wanted to learn how to write.
A student came into class in a temper one day. She ranted about not knowing how to join a required “chat” in her online history class because no instructions had been given and she could not contact the instructor. The instructor had written them a note at the beginning of the semester to “ask other students” if they had problems with the website. Yet, she would be downgraded for missing the chat. (Needless to say, I showed her how to do it.)
There are more. The high school teacher who treats her students as if they’re fourth-graders, the teacher who doesn’t allow questions, the teacher who insists they come to class or lose points even if ill, and on and on.
Are these experiences just aberrations?
Could be. Or the stories might be exaggerated. But there’s usually a grain of truth in even the tallest tales. I know there’s truth in the stories told about me.
More than one student has told me that I’m “constantly” getting “off topic” because I might hold a political discussion or cultural debate when attempting to teach students opinion writing, or I will tell a personal experience (or more than one!) in an effort to get students to share ideas and tell their own stories, as we begin a module on narrative. Not every style of pedagogy works for every student.
Yet if we want to find out what makes a “good” teacher, what might help is to listen to our students, and, in so doing, stop evaluating teachers based on their degrees, how well they fill in required paperwork or how many of their students pass. We must begin to evaluate teachers based on whether they can, and will, actually teach students when they get in a classroom, be it face-to-face or online.
How will we know how “good” teachers really are?
It won’t be on the students’ grade sheets. Some students say a “C” from one teacher is worth much more than an “A” from another, because they actually learned something in the C-teacher’s class.
It won’t be how “loved” a teacher is that makes her “good.” Some teachers who are hated now are loved later, when the student realizes how much he or she learned.
If you really want to know the good from the bad, you simply need to listen.
Students will tell you stories.
Lynda Case Lambert is a Baltimore native and writer with 21 years experience teaching writing and speech.
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