We teachers can quantify a few things-correct answers in arithmetic, mathematical errors
on a composition, vocabulary words, historical dates, identification of fictive characters
and chemical formulae. Most of the time though, each of us finds the heart of his subject
matter elusive: How does one teach another to appreciate literature, to relish history or to
sustain for life an interest in scientific processes? As elusive, as subjective as these
matters are, they are intrinsically related to that which almost defies definition-the
teaching process and its center the teacher himself.
For many years I have been distributed by the cold criteria of the good teacher which
appear in textbooks of educational psychology or sociology. Normally one finds either a
list of injunctions (don't be sarcastic; don't be overly permissive; don' be authoritarian)
or a list of affirmations (be kind and considerate; be loving; know your subject matter;
participate in community affairs) or a combination of these (be kind and loving but not
too much). The novice teacher, confronted by such a list, doesn't know whether to join
the Boy Scouts or the Rotary, or find new parents. What the criteria lack, of course, are
contexts-live teachers in real classrooms before live students.
Rarely do we have time to visit each other's classrooms; even if we did, we would not be sure of context, for our very presence in the back of the room produces subtle changes in the interplay between
teacher and student. I know full well that the student teacher I observe as a supervisor
from the university is not the same student teacher whom the students most frequently
perceive. The student teachers themselves tell me this, and they are not above
forewarning their students: I want you to behave when that strange man comes to visit
the class, the one with the fading hairline and the big notebook.Even experimental uses
of closed-circuit television offer no great promise: Students may become comfortable
with the cyclopean eye, but rarely does the teacher, who knows full well he is on camera,
best tie forward. Too, there may be something obscene about televised classrooms, an
immoral invasion of sacrosanct land in which the forces of love and hate and knowledge
should semi-privately contend.
If textbook criteria do not serve and if observations of live teachers before live students in
valid contexts are impossible, where are we to go to find teachers who are models of
greatness? The answer, I hold, is to literature, to those short stories, essays, novels and
biographies containing descriptions of or portrayals of teachers. Deficiencies, exist, of
course, in one's attempt to formulate a core definition of the great teacher through
reading, for the word is never the thing. Further, while much has been written about
A Teacher's Bible on Climate Changebrilliant teachers whose classes are composed of highly articulate youngsters, little literary tribute has been paid teachers who are confronted daily with hordes of illiterate
and inarticulate students. One can readily account for the discrepancy between the
plethora and the paucity: Literature is written by the literate, those capable of artistically
ordering or reordering reminiscences of teachers who have affected their lives for better
Nonetheless, deficiencies must be weighed against assets: The reader is unobtrusive
observer, and the literary artist, in the process of selectivity, can focus upon those
characteristics least peripheral to the teacher as teacher and to the students as students.
The important point is that the outer extremities of the target are viewed so that one can fully appreciate the circumference of the bull's-eye, like the macrocosm away from the classroom feeding into life, the
microcosm, with its four walls, chalkboard and patterns and demands not too unlike those
outside the window.
Even if one grants, though, that literature can provide a rich source for inducting the
characteristics of a great teacher, he is himself confronted with the problem of selectivity.
Where on a continuum of greatness should one place Anne Sullivan Macy, who steps
quietly from Helen Keller's The Story of My Life to dominate the stage in The Miracle
Worker? Finally, what definition of teacher greatness can be deduced which will be as
applicable to the teacher of the mentally deficient as it is to the teacher of the intelligent?
There exist no ready answers to such questions, for one viewing the teacher in literature
is uneasily but inexorably driven to a subtle tripartite classification: the great personality
as distinct from the great teacher; the great personality as great teacher; and the great
teacher as distinct from the great personality. Convergencies are inevitable in the twilight
between black and white. Every teacher brings into the classroom a personality of sorts. Minimum to greatness, I believe, is that the teacher command the respect of his students and that this ability to command-without demanding-derives from respect of self, subject, and students.