Learn from the greats

20th December 2013 at 00:00

It is a sad, powerful and resonant moment when our final-year teacher education students leave the campus to conduct their last stint of professional experience in schools. It is the pivot of their professional lives, when university academics can - for the last time - support them on their way to independence.

I was recently asked to give students advice as they moved through this late stage of their degree. I offered the following five characteristics of the greatest teachers I have known.

1. Recognise that education is not about the teacher. Our attention and our respect must be focused on the student and their learning. Often we, as teachers, have to shift ourselves - our history, bias and experience - out of the way. If we teach and the students do not learn, then we have not taught. We have simply occupied space and time without consciousness or care.

2. Keep reading. My first question of student teachers is "What are you reading?" The reason for my enquiry is that I am interested in how colleagues bring new knowledge into their lives that will challenge and transform their experiences. I do not respect teachers who are not regular readers. Reading encourages reflection, doubt and critique, which are attributes of the best teachers. Reading enables innovation and imagination, while complacency creates compliance and consensus.

3. Be prepared to change location. Some student teachers assume that they will work within a 20-minute drive of their home. This is naive and incorrect. The nature of teaching is that we move between towns and cities to gain employment. The best teachers leave their homes to gain new experiences in remote areas. I have worked in four countries and eight universities: that diversity develops a flexibility of mind and body. We must remain fit, mobile, resilient, pliable and able to understand our context with intellectual generosity rather than imposing self-interest and prejudice.

4. Stay fresh and energised. Teaching is a privilege. We are living in an educational culture of complaint, so it is important to think about more soul-destroying, physically debilitating and underpaid occupations. We could be emptying garbage in winter or tiling a roof under the scorching sun; instead, we have an opportunity to transform the lives and thinking of students and staff in our care. Acknowledging this privilege is a way to ensure that we activate our best selves.

5. Respect diversity and learn from it. The best teachers recognise (with kindness and respect) the great scholars who have preceded them. They observe (with responsibility and joy) the future leaders in our classrooms. They pay due regard to the wisdom that emerges from a life of diversity. Many of our students experience bullying and discrimination on the grounds of race, sexuality or impairment. They have lessons to teach us so we must listen, understand, share and remember. A teacher remains a learner.

Tara Brabazon is professor of education and head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University in Australia. Her new book, Digital Dieting, is published by Ashgate.

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