Saturday, October 30, 2010

True Effective Teachers Teach Students, Not Subjects

I just purchased the Dalai Lama’s new book My Spiritual Journey. Like many of his other writings, this one is full of wisdom. In a section entitled “In Our Blood, a Vital Need for Affection” he states:

“If a teacher doesn’t limit himself to academic teaching, if he also takes on the responsibility of preparing his students for life, they will have respect for him and confidence in him. The things they learn from him will leave an indelible print in their minds.Conversely, subjects taught by someone who doesn’t care about his students’ well-being will be of only passing interest to them and will soon be forgotten.”

When I think for just minute about the teachers who heavily impacted my life, everyone that comes to mind were teachers who more interested in me rather than my test scores.

The whole problem with today’s “accountability culture is that it’s generating a culture where a student’s score on the latest standardized test becomes more important than individual student needs and interest.

The Dalai Lama’s remarks reminded me of my third grade teacher. I was fascinated with science, and she encouraged us to have class discussions about our own experiences with the world. It was not about memorizing and test preparation. It was about her guiding us to a scientific understanding of the world. I learned much more about science that year.

Then, there was my sixth grade teacher. I remember how excited she acted when students brought into her classroom fish, insects, reptiles, amphibians and anything else that could crawl or walk, even fly. She asked endless questions about these natural treasures, often prompting more than one student to go to the library to look up information so that she could answer her questions. She also frequently asked students to write original stories, fiction and nonfiction, to share with classmates. She always delighted in what every student wrote, and once even told me I would make an excellent writer someday. Her unrelenting interest in me was much more than test scores and how we did in the subjects she taught. She was genuinely engaging students, not subjects.

Later, I encountered Mr. - - - - , my geometry teacher. He taught the only math class in which I have ever made an A. While I learned a great deal in his class, what I remember most from his class was his “joke of the day” that was always extremely corny, but it never failed to solicit laughter. This action made him human to his students, and said to us, “Yes there’s geometry, but there’s also life out there.” He used geometry to teach us bout life, not the other way around.

What did all my most influential teachers have that make them still stand out to me today? Each of these teachers taught me, not a subject. In those days, of course, there were no standardized tests checking up on my performance or their teaching, but in that time you still had teachers who taught subjects rather than their students and those teachers and what they taught does not easily come to mind.

I think this is the distinction that the Dalai Lama makes in the above statement.  As teachers, we must never get entangled in subjects and test scores to the point that we forget we are teaching students. When the academic becomes more important than “preparing students for life,” our true impact on our students’ lives will be minimal. True teachers teach their students about life, and that impact is eternal.


  1. I love this post. So many teachers are so focused on assessment that they forge ahead to finish the curriculum at the expense of really aiding students in the learning process. Teachers need to remember why they became teachers in the first place - let's bring honour back to the profession!

  2. Relationships are the key. You need to work on relationships before you will be able to take students somewhere. It is also important that you let the students know that you don't own the truth. Be ready to admit you made a mistake and don't act like you know everything. Keep up the good work. Best, DrDougGreen.Com.

  3. Love the Dalai Lama true. I agree wholeheartedly with your post and the comments here, but can I ask what you require from your teachers in terms of standardization? Do you insist on common assessments and sticking to curriculum pacing charts? How do you ensure that learning is taking place without standardization?

  4. We have a small dedicated staff of 7 teachers whose standardization lies to working hard to make sure what they are doing is helping students achieve. We have some standard procedures of course, but the only quality we have standardized is a reflective practice that always looks toward what it takes to achieve. As a project-based learning school, every six weeks our students demonstrate effectively what they have learned.