What Makes a Superteacher?
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
This has been a challenging year for any teacher. Even during a regular year, teachers work hard to meet the many demands and expectations of their profession.
Even before you become a teacher, you have to check what feels like a hundred boxes. In college, you need to fulfill the requirements of your major (and sometimes minor), then take the required courses in education, complete a semester of student teaching without pay, and in some states, get a master’s degree.
When you think of the thirty-five teachers (a minimum) you encounter in a lifetime, how many truly stand out? How many are superteachers? Maybe a handful made a serious mark on you and changed the trajectory of your life. I remember my mother said that she loved all of her teachers. It could be a small comment they made or it could be their personality. But we remember them and we take them with us wherever we go in life.
When you think about the incredible demands of teaching, there are three things a teacher must have:
1. A deep understanding and command of the content
When I really think of the complexity of the conversations that happen on a daily basis around my department office, I’m blown away. We regularly talk about the canon and what makes literature literature. We wrestle with what voices are in our curriculum and what voices are missing. We talk novels, poetry, essays, politics, philosophy, art, podcasts, movies … anything that involves language. To teach literature, one must know the power of letters, sounds, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. One must see how all of these parts of language connect and extend an idea, emotion, or reality. It is not easy to unite old stories with the present moment. Just as a science teacher speaks about vaccines, or a geometry teacher speaks about bridges, an English teacher speaks about the language and culture of their current time and place. The language of hope, love, conflict, family, imagination, and philosophy.
2. An incredible ability to inspire a love of the content and hard work
A teacher not must not only understand what they teach, the material or the text itself, the major characters, the minor characters, the details of the plot and essential moments of dialogue, the incredible amount of symbolic details that establish a setting and an atmosphere, but they must know how that text has a spirit, a life of its own, that extends beyond the year of its creation. Beyond the writer and the place – the town, the region, and the country. That literature allows readers, strangers to the writer, who, long after the writer is gone, can enter the consciousness of all the characters they create. By reading and studying literature, students can immerse themselves both in one moment and place in time and in any moment and place in time.
Teachers must be able, somehow, to express the beauty and magnificence of literature. To perform the emotion of the language out loud and to ask the most thought-provoking questions to spark conversation. Inspiring children to get interested, stay focused, and work hard takes a little bit of kindness, fun, and flexibility and a little bit of rigor, expectation, and diligence. A teacher knows how to balance passion and professionalism, fun and excellence. The rhythm and energy of a classroom can inspire a child to have the willingness and confidence to succeed.
3. Authenticity and whatever it is that makes us human
A child remembers their teacher for many reasons, but mostly for their ability to care, to be kind, courteous, gentle, considerate, funny, silly, witty, and passionate. We must be professional and fair with our deadlines and expectations for performance, but also willing to do whatever it takes to inspire a teenager to be earnest and focused. A child should be excited to do the work we assign, not fearful of punishment and bad grades.
All of the teachers I remember were amazing storytellers and able to talk about anything and everything. They made sense out of a senseless world. Children turn to their teachers when they need to understand seemingly unexplainable human behavior. Teachers have to not only get the big picture, but also be able to explain the big picture with anecdotes and evidence. Children look to us for a path forward when there doesn’t seem to be one.
If we want our students to be compassionate, they need to read literature that guides them on that journey, but they also need to know adults that live out those words in real life. There are some stories that we will never forget. Stories help create the world that we want to exist. But real people, real conversations, real relationships … that’s what matters the most.
I feel like I struggle the most with #1 when I teach a novel for the first time. I struggle with #2 every day – it’s never easy to keep every single child engaged and on task, and more importantly, in love with literature and completely immersed in the lives of the characters and the world of the story. #3 might be the easiest for me now, but it took years for me to learn how to teach and to be comfortable and confident enough with the material … only then did I truly relax and learn how to be myself. I’ve found these three things happen in stages - it takes a while to get comfortable with each stage. It makes you realize the incredible art of teaching and the amount of intellectual and emotional energy that goes into the job.
Podcast, The Joys of Teaching Literature
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