As we speak, my oldest son beavers away at a history degree at a fine university in this country’s Pacific Northwest. Our telephone conversations and Spring Break bike rides on Indy’s wonderful Monon Trail are punctuated by discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the continuing relevance of Plato’s Republic as well as the merits of road over mountain bikes and the fitness benefits of pushing along really fat tires.
Why history? Because First Son’s strong but uneven education at the British School of Costa Rica brought him into contact with the curmudgeonly but brilliant and engaged ‘Mr Wolf’, an historian with a stubborn and inelegant fixation on making history relevant for high school students in what others of his ilk might have dismissed as an intellectual and cultural backwater.
I do not know where First Son will end up in this world. Perseverance, an adventurous streak, and the United States Army conspire to widen the menu of options. Wherever he goes, thanks to the unsung Mr Wolf, Christopher will think and act with historical intelligence. Given that he’ll be carrying a weapon, this might save a life or—the world being the messy thing that it is—take the more appropriate one.
Leave it to the nearly unrivaled Atlantic Monthly to pepper its January/February 2010 issue with an evocative piece entitled ‘What Makes a Great Teacher?’
Those of us who find our pulses quickened when a mind opens or a spirit soars but who ascribe these desiderata to serendipity, charisma, or inspiration may find author Amanda Ripley’s conclusions surprising.
In a culture that both celebrates and wallows in mediocrity, Ripley’s reporting of conclusions developed by Teach for America lie somewhere between unexpected and stunning. Serendipity, charisma, and inspiration lie at some remove from the criteria that recent research identifies as the essentials of great teaching and—more importantly—empowered learning.
Mr Wolf—to whom this family o’ mine owes no small debt of gratitude—likely intuited years ago what TfA’s research now places before us as measured conclusions:
Great teachers set big goals for their students.
Great teachers avidly recruit students and their families into the process.
Great teachers maintain focus, ensuring that everything they do contributes to student learning.
Great teachers plan exhaustively and purposefully by working backward from the desired outcome.
Great teachers refuse to surrender to the combined menace of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.
Great teachers, if one may be permitted a few supplementary addenda of his own, are devout learners.
They are cantankerous in the face of forced homogenization.
They are the sworn enemies of canonized limitations.
They long to see their pupils live large.
They are not easily halted in their intrepid, vigorous adventure.
They are, like Mr Wolf, often, gratefully, and eagerly to be praised.