The Key to Good Teaching

Written by Laura Young on April 12th, 2017

“In the end is my beginning.” –T. S.Eliot, “East Coker”

At Providence Classical Christian School we know that good teachers make what they do look easy, when anyone who has tried, really tried, to be a good—or better yet—a great teacher—knows it is anything but easy. To answer the question “What makes a good teacher?” is to begin with its end, its all important telos, which in turn is a function of worldview—for what we believe to be ultimate reality is going to determine both how and what we teach. How can we say what constitutes the “good” of something unless we know the objective standard by which we measure the worth that thing—in this case, teaching?

Books abound on what good teaching looks like. Even within classical Christian circles, no shortage of reading material exists as increasing numbers of people come to see the value of both Christian and classical teaching. I suppose that the starting point for many of us in Christian education is John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching, which, while written in the mid-1800’s, contains much practical and timeless wisdom. In simplified parlance the seven laws can be summarized as:

  1. Know your subject well and keep learning it anew. Model what it is to be a learner.
  2. Find ways to keep your students’ attention; begin with communicating genuine passion about your subject
  3. Establish an accurate and meaningful starting point by ascertaining what your students know and do not know.
  4. Use language and provide examples that elucidate rather than muddle ideas.
  5. Model activities that teach students to become self-learners.
  6. Inspire students to become “discoverers” rather than “memorizers.”
  7. Use effective review to check for understanding and to reinforce learning.

Similar principles are delineated in just about any decent book on pedagogy. Carol Cumming in Teaching Makes a Difference emphasizes setting clearly defined cognitive objectives that locate their beginnings in their ends. Objectives, while perhaps time-consuming to ascertain and articulate in advance, prevent teachers from filling a chunk of time with subject content that is merely described rather than defined. What that means in practical terms is that good teachers do not disseminate information in a vacuum. They not only know their stuff and are passionate about others knowing it also, but they know in advance why this particular lesson, this nugget, matters, and have planned in advance how to shape it, how to present it, how to engage student interest, how to check for understanding, how to connect it to past and possibly future learning, and how to measure whether the student has “caught” that which has been taught. Not easy, but doable when all of the teacher’s actions (and reactions) flow from a predetermined (though sometimes flexible) objective.

Good teachers do not merely hope that students will find the learning meaningful or declare it a moral imperative that they do so. Nor do they work against the grain of human nature by assuming that most of their students will take it for granted that what they are learning is worthwhile. Good teachers are knowledgeable, enthusiastic, purposeful, and reflective, but they also know that personal discipline will only take most post-grammar students so far if they do not believe that the learning is somehow relevant to them—either in the here and now or in their not-too-distant futures. And the fact is that past a certain point, merely declaring that something is worth knowing is not sufficient for critical-thinking pre-adults. They need to experience learning in a way that allows them to construct meaning for themselves. And this is where teaching from a biblical worldview—both in form and content—makes all the difference.

A good Christian teacher first and foremost loves the Lord and accepts as Truth His every declaration. This is the end with which he must begin. Our purpose as Christian educators is to employ the most effective pedagogical practices available to us in order to equip students to understand, appreciate, and function within the world as God has seen fit to create it. We begin with the basics and continue to expose our students to the finest grist for the mill that is their minds. Rung by rung we move them up the ladder that is Bloom’s taxonomy—from the first step that is Knowledge to the highest rung of Evaluation. To the extent that we do this skillfully, compassionately, and reflectively, we have responded to the call to teach well. But to be a good Christian educator is to never mistake Bloom’s ladder for Jacob’s. For to be truly excellent teachers, be it Providence or any other Christian school, we must be truly humble servants who have wrestled with truth and come away from it with a vision of our having been called to shape students not just cognitively, but spiritually. Our faith helps determine not just what we teach, but how. A great Christian teacher teaches the virtue of diligence by being diligent in his own work. He trains the affections by sharing good things that he can’t help but enjoy. He teaches respect for others by visibly communicating respect or worth in the way he manages his classroom time, the way he responds to students, the way he talks about others. Not every lesson can or should be an object lesson in virtue, but every lesson, every conversation will teach something about what it means to bear Christ’s image and to model His virtue. This is key to good teaching: not just knowing and loving what we teach, but knowing that what we teach and how we teach it is a function of why—and the why is the end that gives us our beginning.