“Good teachers take time out and speak to students like they are friends. They never give up on any student…

Education [teaching] is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. 

—William Butler Yeats

Some years ago, as part of a ten-year classroom research project on teaching Standard English to African American students, I worked with a focus group of students and parents from my community here in the Mississippi Delta.

One of the questions I posed to them was: What makes a good English teacher? Their responses were insightful, not only for the research project, but for my ongoing work as a classroom teacher.  The following student remark was typical:

 Good English teachers have a good relationship with their students. Not only do they teach the students, but they talk to the students about things other than the things that are supposed to be taught. Good teachers take time out and speak to students like they are friends. They never give up on any student, no matter how much they don’t understand the work. The teachers always keep their patience and try to help the students no matter what.

Similarly, the parents in the focus group stressed the attitude of the teacher towards their children as the most critical factor in teacher effectiveness, particularly in teaching language arts. The question has never been whether Black students could learn standard English, advanced math, or any other subject. The battle has been getting our children the opportunity to learn in culturally appropriate settings; to be taught, not trained.

Near the end of my study, I adopted the term culturally engaged instruction to describe how teaching and learning occur in my classroom. The students and I are engaged (committed to an interactive, mutually satisfying relationship over an extended period of time) in an exchange of cultural information. I learned that students and parents must develop a level of trust with the teachers in order to compensate for the historically derived mistrust that language arts instruction has engendered within large segments of the African American community. This goes beyond just a superficial, “I like my teacher,” although that may be how the students articulate it. It is trust rooted in respect and nurtured through genuine communication.

I am convinced that successful teaching can only come from a working knowledge of the student as an individual and as part of a broader historical and social network. Empowering language arts instruction is a dynamic practice shaped by collaborative analysis of the particular cultural experiences, strengths, and learning goals of students within a specific community.

We need the professional courage and competency to teach students, not just to flaunt our knowledge of content. The art and science of teaching involves not only dispensing facts and terminology, but also learning cultures, needs, and perspectives which may not match, or even conflict with our own.

My goal as an English teacher is to help my students become more effective communicators in various mediums (speaking, writing, listening, and reading) for the world in which they must live and lead.

Me, I’m a firestarter.


Photo Credit: Stockarch.com

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