The Art of Teaching

A decision to teach grows out of a desire to make a difference.

When I went to college I had to choose a major. I juggled several options — music, law, astronomy, anthropology, communications.

I chose to teach.

Like a physician motivated by an overwhelming desire cure disease, I chose a profession with a higher purpose. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to serve the needs of children. I wanted to serve the needs of my community.

I left college believing that teaching was a noble profession. Forty-one years later I have not changed my mind. In fact, I believe it now more than ever.

The nobility in teaching comes from the faith that teachers have in youth. Faith in youth translates into a faith in the future, and faith in the future translates into a faith in humanity. Teachers who don't possess that faith won’t survive long in the classroom.

And nobody ever said that teaching would be easy. It hasn’t been.

I have seen experienced teachers — those who thought they had seen everything — walk into classrooms only to find that students had found new ways to challenge them, new ways to make them feel like rank amateurs.

Teaching is much more difficult than people outside the profession can ever understand.

And no teacher gets it right every day because teaching is not a science. Teaching is an art form. Good teachers are like good artists.
  • They bring their own personality and their own spirit into their work.
  • They help people learn what it means to be human.
  • They inspire people to appreciate the best that human beings can achieve.
  • They change people’s lives.
  • They know the success of their work is judged by an abstract standard. Just as you know good art when you see it, you know good teaching when you see it.
Good art and good teaching are essential to making our world better. Both have the ability to make a difference in people's lives. Both are vital to the health of the communities in which we live.

"I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit." – John Steinbeck

Over the years I have learned that mastering the art of teaching required me to address four essential questions.
  1. What do I teach?
  2. How do I teach?
  3. Why do I teach?
  4. Who am I as as a teacher?
The first question was usually answered for me. In most cases, when I taught a new course I was handed a curriculum guide or textbook that provided me with the content of the course I was teaching. For most subjects, a consensus about content was decided long before I taught the course.

The second question took time for me to find an adequate answer. For several years I spent time experimenting, finding my way, attending workshops, talking with other teachers. I eventually discovered the teaching strategies that worked best for me. It took time for me to learn what worked with the students shaped by the community in which I lived.

My answer to the third question has evolved over time. I have spent my career in teaching as someone who also spent a lot of time reading and learning, looking for a higher purpose to what I do in the classroom. I have also learned how necessary it is to find an answer to this question. Surviving in the profession requires a periodic reminder of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place. If I want to motivate students, I must also keep myself motivated.

"To learn and never be filled is wisdom; to teach and never be weary is love." – Arab Proverb

The fourth question — who am I as a teacher? — penetrates right to the heart of what it takes to succeed in the classroom. Students work hard for teachers they respect. To be a good teacher I therefore need also to be a good person. I need to be the type of person who motivates students and makes them want to do their best.

Putting all this together — answering these four questions — has led me to a better understanding of what it takes to master the art of teaching. To be a good teacher I need to know my subject, as well as the teaching strategies that work best for me and the type of students I teach. I need to clarify the reasons that teaching history is a worthwhile endeavor. I need to be a missionary for my subject and grow as a person so that I am the right person to teach that subject.

(1) Banner, James M., Jr. and Harold C. Cannon,
The Elements of Teaching, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977) pp. 1-6.
(2) Palmer, Parker J.,
The Courage to Teach, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998) p. 4.