What Great Teaching Looks Like - National Council of Teachers of English
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What Great Teaching Looks Like

This post is written by author, Martha Brockenbrough

MarthaBrockenbroughI don’t envy teachers these days. You know what you’re up against—I don’t need to tell you.

But what I can tell you, as a writer, a parent, and a former teacher, is this: The things that drew you to the profession are still the truth about why teaching matters. You are a teacher because you love and value children and because you believe that caring about them is the best way to help shepherd them into a hard-edged world.

Given the importance of this quest, the long shadow cast by standardized tests is more than ridiculous. It’s an outrage. No child is motivated—except in the most transient, soul-damaging ways—by standardized tests.

So what does work with children, especially when it comes to reading and writing? That thing you already know how to do. That thing that drew you to the classroom in the first place. That thing that means you will never forget the best teachers you ever had.

It’s love.

And this is what it looks like.

It looks like Mrs. Cleveland, my third-grade teacher, who knew I needed something to get through the math that scared me. She planted a branch in the corner of the classroom and called it a tree, and she hung strips of paper on its twigs, each of which contained a word. When I was done with my math, she let me pick a word and use it to start a story. And she read every one of those stories and told me I was a writer.

It looks like Ms. Adams, who understood why I never had money for books from the Scholastic catalog, and sometimes bought books for me with her own money.

It looks like Mr. King, who had us write down the titles of the books we read, who never questioned our choices, who simply encouraged us for reading.

It looks like Mr. Bayley, who read to us for 10 minutes every day even though we were old enough to read to ourselves.

It looks like Tom and Mike, who weren’t even officially teachers—but who were coaches who knew I wrote stories and volunteered to read them, even though they weren’t any good.

Love also looks like teachers I observe today, including Mr. Hankins and TJ Shay, making sure students are reading strong, contemporary books that help them feel what it means to be a human being. And it looks like librarians Andria Amaral and Shauna Yusko, who literally keep their students fed, because no one can learn on an empty stomach.
This is more important than using reading as proof of achievement or intellectual prowess. Books are a safe space for us to practice being people, for us to understand the complexity of our own thoughts and feelings and the reality of the complexity of others in our lives.

Great teachers keep that safe space intact and honor it. Great teachers know that the act of protecting the curiosity and individuality of our students is powerful fuel. Kids who are secure and loved as learners have everything they need to perform at their highest levels on standardized tests.

They don’t need to be taught to perform to them. They simply need to be shown that unfolding themselves as they are—with courage and hunger and resilience, with self-respect and respect for others—is everything they need to succeed in this world.

How does love look in your classroom or library? Like games? Letters to future selves? Stories? Snacks? I’d love to know.

Meanwhile, thank you for what you do. I am a writer today because of the teachers who loved me. There is a test that measures that: life itself. I owe my happy and productive one in no small part to them, and to people like you.

Martha Brockenbrough is the author of The Game of Love and Death, a Kirkus Prize finalist, winner of the Pacific Northwest Book Award, and Publishers Weekly Top 10 book for teens in 2015. She has written several books for young readers and has worked as a teacher, journalist and editor. The founder of National Grammar Day, she’s written game questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit. She’s spoken twice at NCTE and looks forward to spending more time with an inspiring group of teachers.