TED Conversations

Vice Principal, Educator - High School

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What is the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher?

I am curious to know what people consider the attributes that separate good from great. I would also like to know what you think would motivate a person who is a good teacher to aspire for that same greatness. Thanks for your ideas!


Closing Statement from Gene Doray

Firstly, I am deeply appreciative of the thoughtful commentaries by all. As both a teacher and an administrator, I have a strong investment in finding out what motivates people to improve their practice. Passion for their subject area? Passion for student success? A combination of both? For me it boils down to the desire to make a positive impact and improve the life chances of all students. I believe it is an honour to have the opportunity to play such an important role in the lives of our children.
When I posed the question, in the back of my mind I was thinking about a quotation that I had heard that sought to explain why we had so few "great schools". It was something like, "the reason we only have a few great schools is that we have so many good ones." The statement first caused me to ponder what traits the speaker used to differentiate the two, but later I focused on the notion of "complacency". So, I wondered "aloud" what it is that causes a person to strive for more. Once again, thanks for sharing your ideas and insights with us all. I apologize for not being involved for the past several weeks as I was enjoying some family time on an island with no computer in sight!

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    Jul 6 2011: This question took hold of me a few years ago and I set out on a pilgrimage to find truly great teachers across American and interview them about their teaching. The fifty-one interviews were published in book form, Conversations with Great Teachers (Indian University Press.) The interviewees include not only K-12 and university teachers, but also corporate mentors, ballet teachers, a major-league baseball manager, Barack Obama’s political mentor, acting teacher Martin Landau, and even teachers of exotic dancing and alligator wrestling. Among the qualities I found they had in common were that teaching was a true calling, that they were experts in their field, believers in excellence, passionate about teaching, intuitive about their students, that they taught larger meta-lessons, that they had a knack for making learning experiential.
    The quality of their being experts in their field perhaps challenges the way many teachers are trained--that is, they major in education and presumably learn to teach, and then they acquire some knowledge as the content of their teaching, chemistry or history, for example. But I found that teaching was not so much a separate art as an aspect of being an expert. So Suki Shorer became a great ballerina and Martin Landau a great actor and then each developed an further ability to teach their great craft to others. If I were to found my own ed school, I would have every student become a passionate expert in a discipline and then as an extension of their love for history or math, develop their ability to teach it to others.
    I can say that doing these interviews turned out to be one of the more reading and inspirational experiences of my life.
    • Jul 6 2011: HI Bill,
      What a great "pilgrimage" to set out on! Did the teachers that you interviewed provide any self reflection, or sense of what their sources of inspiration were? The idea that there is a "calling" is certainly evidenced time and again, but aside from a person's innate ability, there is that yearning to learn more, improve the learning conditions, and create better life possibilities for their students. Did you get a sense about their "development" as a teacher and what fosters that need for betterment? Thanks for your comments; I will try to find your book for a good summer read!
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        Jul 7 2011: Their stories about their development varied quite a bit, but it did seem as if some just had the "teaching gene" and were recognized for it by others. For example, Martin Landau talked about how Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio tapped him when he was very young to do some teaching, and Balanchine did the same with ballerina Suki Shorer. Some mentioned that they learned to teach by trial and error, and a few said it took some years to feel totally at home teaching. But even for those who have "the gift," they worked very hard at it. And that hard work is fueled by their passion.
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      Jul 7 2011: Bill, I am inspired by your vision of the "student as expert." Thanks for your work and for sharing it with us. I am wondering how to leverage this to use in my classroom this coming year - thanks for a new approach.

      In this vein, I would say that a great teacher never stops learning or questioning on their students' behalf. That, at least, is what I aspire to.

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