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What makes a good teacher?

/ 05:05 AM September 27, 2019

Contrary to popular belief, prostitution is not the “oldest profession” in the world, it’s teaching. This comes to mind every September when National Teachers’ Month comes and goes almost unnoticed, emphasizing the sad fact that teachers are probably the most underappreciated professionals in the country.

Teachers should be constantly thanked and encouraged for their work in nation building, since they form and inform the future in the classroom. We in Ateneo de Manila University Loyola Schools are fortunate that the Tsinoy student organization, Celadon, celebrates Confucius’ birthday on Sept. 28 by thanking their teachers with tokens or a thoughtful note. They also run a poll where I have been voted by students as either their most memorable, most sought-after, or funniest teacher of the year. Twice or thrice I appeared on trading cards they printed, with me always wondering who bought these.

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Too bad they don’t give out awards for the minority of terror or boring teachers, if only to shame them to update their pedagogical methods. This was attempted by another student organization that, tongue-in-cheek, conferred the Hieroglyphics Award on the teacher with the worst penmanship on a blackboard, and the Ibong Adarna Award on another, alluding to the mythical bird whose song induced sleep so easy and deep that to keep awake to capture the bird, you needed to cut yourself on the arm with a knife and squeeze a fresh calamansi juice on the wound.

Looking back on my own journey as a teacher, I realized that I have formed myself both from the teachers who taught me well as well as from those who didn’t. The former inspired imitation, the latter were models on how not to teach. I was fortunate to have been under five who were recognized with the prestigious Metrobank Outstanding Teachers Award: Julia de la Cruz taught me high school math; Esperanza Chee Kee taught me high school English; Marcelino Foronda taught me postgraduate Philippine history; Emerita Quito opened my eyes to the beauty of philosophy; and Doreen G. Fernandez began by teaching me freshman English and became a lifelong friend and fellow traveler in Filipiniana research and writing. I also know of or have known other Metrobank teaching awardees whose life and experience inform my own classroom teaching.

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OPINION

Almost three decades ago, as a postgraduate student in London who had no coursework and classroom contact hours, I went to observe my supervisor’s undergraduate history class. I arrived early at a large lecture hall, filled with over a hundred restless students who all fell silent when the professor entered the hall with appropriate gravitas, and took his seat behind a small table where he set down a slim folder that contained the morning’s lecture. He did not stand up to write on the board behind him, he just read for 90 minutes. At the end of the lecture, he calmly shuffled his lecture notes, closed his folder, put it in his briefcase and exited as quietly as he entered. No questions were fielded, attendance was not recorded—and that wouldn’t have mattered because the professor hardly looked up or at his students during the hour-and-a-half-long lecture. He could have read to a class of one or one thousand, it made no difference.

I was so disturbed by this that I followed the professor to his office and asked what all that was about, explaining that in Manila I went to great lengths to keep my students engaged. I did everything short of doing cartwheels and eating fire in the classroom to catch their attention, and all he did that morning was to read. Then he gave me fatherly advice: “That, dear Ambeth, is a lecture. From the Latin root word ‘lectio’ you can guess that lectures are read.” If I attempted the same routine in my Manila classroom, with no head count and attendance check, most of the students would skip class. One enterprising student could record the lecture on a phone and sell it to the lazy ones who were absent.

Teachers today have Keynote, PowerPoint and an assortment of apps that make lecturing more attractive; they can go digital and reach outside the physical classroom. But a good teacher has simple tools: mastery of the subject, presented in an engaging and meaningful way.

Comments are welcome at [email protected] ateneo.edu

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