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The 'Natural' Teacher

Every profession has practitioners who seem to have been born with the wherewithal to become a success. Teaching is no exception. Jaime Escalante, Frank McCourt and Pat Conroy immediately come to mind. They possessed an uncanny ability to achieve wonders with their students because they followed their inner voice. But there are countless other teachers who deserve equal recognition for performing what I consider to be akin to miracles in the classroom.

From time to time, I receive e-mails from former students who thank me for one thing or another, even though they're not sure I remember them. They seem surprised when I promptly respond with details that make it clear I do. The truth, however, is that I still don't know exactly what I did (or didn't do) to leave an indelible imprint on them. (I say that because I'm sure there are many students I had who don't share their views.) Nevertheless, their comments lead me to believe that non-cognitive outcomes are given too little attention in today's accountability movement.

That's because attitudes and values are remembered long after knowledge and skills are forgotten. Yet reformers completely ignore the importance of the former due to their obsession with the latter. That's totally counterproductive if the goal is to create lifelong learners. Teachers can - and do - teach their subjects well, and yet teach their students to hate the subjects in the process. They don't do this deliberately, of course, but it happens more often now because teachers are under unprecedented pressure to boost test scores. Turning classrooms into test preparation factories is hardly the way to develop a love of a subject.

The best advice I can give teachers today who face demands I never did during the 28 years that I taught is to try to form bonds with students. As I wrote before, "there has to be chemistry between teacher and students" ("What Jaime Escalante Taught All of Us," Apr. 5, 2010). Although multicultural classrooms can enrich learning, they can also make it hard to understand students whose backgrounds are different. But it's important not to give up trying to reach them. Teachers may find, as I did, that my students taught me more than I taught them.

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