In my role as teacher trainer, I get to meet a lot of interesting school-y sort of people: teachers, managers, a DoS or two, and the like. As might be expected, a lot of the conversations I get involved in are about teachers and teaching, and as these conversations develop, almost invariably the all-encompassing descriptor 'good' appears.
Let me give you a quick example of how a conversation might go. My phone rings, it's a strange number.
"Hello?" I answer, distractedly.
"Aj. Steve, it's Khun Yai from Wat Awandaphul School."
To which, despite my deplorable memory, I reply:
"Oh yes, great to hear from you, Khun...er Yai. I hope everything is fine." I am the perfect gentleman, am I not?
"Fine Ajarn Steve. We need a good teacher. Do you have?"
If this were an Austin Powers movie, at this point there would be a loud zing from the violins, and a dramatic camera zoom into the depths of my eyeballs. I would look confused and bewildered and maybe bite a fingernail. Let's pause the conversation here, and see what it is that is causing all the drama. It's that word 'good'. What exactly is a 'good' teacher? How would I know a 'good' teacher if I saw one? Whose criteria should be used for judging this 'good'-ness?
To investigate this tricky (and serious) question, we will delve into the murky depths of (this fictitious) Wat Awandaphul School, and explore some opinions about teacher 'good'-ness. For the purposes of illustrating my point, allow me to indulge in some stereotyping: for which I apologize in advance.
A question of good
First, let's visit P5. Here's Pop. He's 11 or so. He likes hanging out with his friends and is not too keen on nerdy explorations of foreign languages. If we were to ask him about a good English teacher, he'd talk about Teacher Andy. Pop really likes him. Teacher Andy is never serious; he likes to have fun and play games in class, or just chat, and he never gets angry. In fact, he doesn't even mind if Pop chats to his friends during the lesson or does his maths homework.
Perhaps Teacher Andy doesn't notice - Pop can't be too sure. Teacher Andy also doesn't give homework; and even if he does, he doesn't check it anyway. Everyone got high scores in Teacher Andy's class. Pop thinks he is definitely the best teacher ever.
Pop has a brother, Poom, who is one year ahead of Pop and wants to be a doctor when he grows up. Poom used to study with Teacher Andy, but didn't like him. To Poom, Teacher Bee is a good teacher. Teacher Bee is so interesting! She always brings things into class to show everyone, and seems to know so much about everything. Her lessons are inspiring.
In one class, Ms. Bee told them about British food, and brought some for everyone to try. It wasn't delicious, but it was fun. Poom never feels sleepy in Ms. Bee's lessons. She likes everyone to walk around during class and talk to each other, and doesn't even care if the students can't say the things in English correctly.
Once Ms. Bee had a worksheet about the soi in front of the school, and everyone had to go and find things there. That time, Ms. Bee had an argument with Kr. Oil about why we were all leaving the school. Even if Kr. Oil doesn't like Ms. Bee, Poom thinks she is a good teacher!
Oil is Pop's homeroom teacher. Oil doesn't think Mr. Andy is a good teacher - he is absent a lot and never marks his books. Ms. Bee isn't very good either; she always has trouble managing the class and has to call someone to discipline the students because they aren't listening or doing their work. The parents have also complained about Ms. Bee because the students never do the work in their books. She wishes she could work with Teacher Ced. He always manages the students very well. The students are always well behaved and quiet, and he always finishes all the work before the exam. Teacher Ced likes to teach alone, and never asks for help. When he's teaching, Oil can have some time off! Teacher Ced's a real teacher!
The head of the department is Noi. Noi has had a lot of problems with Teacher Ced. The students are always complaining about him, and he once even hit Somchai (or so the students say). Oil always leaves the classroom during his lessons, so he was alone at the time and it's not clear what actually happened.
Last year, Teacher Ced got really angry when the school decided that they were going to change the scores of some of the students in his class who had failed, and he shouted at Kh. Yai. He is so impolite. Noi likes Mr. Dee because he understands Thai culture. When he greets, he always uses the 'wai', and he smiles a lot. He is always clean and dresses politely. He never gets angry like Teacher Ced, and always accepts decisions about the schedules and activities. Mr. Dee is such a good teacher.
Pop and Poom's mother fondly remembers Ms. Eve, who used to teach her boys. Ms. Eve could speak Thai well, and always informed the parents about the classwork and the boys' progress. Besides, Ms. Eve was so cute, with her curly hair and blue eyes.
One of the other parents told her that Ms. Eve even stayed behind after class to help the students who were failing so they could pass successfully. Wow. Ms. Eve was a wonderful teacher! Unfortunately, Ms. Eve left the school because she had an argument with Teacher Ced - he got angry when all her students got high marks and blamed her for letting them cheat. Everyone knows about it because they were shouting in front of the children.
A popularity contest
So, we have a very complex set of opinions. It seems that 'good' depends very much on who is speaking, and what it is they are looking for in a teacher. However, this all implies that being a well-liked teacher is the same as being 'good'. Is popularity a good measure of teacher 'good'-ness? In some cases, possibly; but there are plenty of teachers who are popular with students, but unpopular with their fellow teachers. Or popular with neither students nor colleagues, but popular with the school management. Or some other combination.
Back to my conversation with Kh. Yai of Wat Awandaphul school. She's asked me if I have a good teacher. Do I? Does Yai like relaxed teachers like Andy? Or an inspiring one like Bee? Or a militaristic teacher like Ced? Or a culturally sensitive one like Dee? Or a dedicated one like Eve?
Or perhaps there are there a completely different set of requirements that haven't been covered here - qualifications, youthfulness, ethnicity, length of experience? Is there some convoluted and tangled mix of all of these characteristics that Kh. Yai is hoping to find all in one neat package?
A good question
I have to admit that it is easy and tempting to think about teachers in shades of 'good'. But perhaps the reality is that there is no such thing as a good teacher. Or, if you are a glass-half-full sort, every teacher is good (in their own little way). I would like to say I go for this option: after all, does any teacher wake up in the morning and set out to be a 'bad' teacher? I rather doubt it.
Perhaps instead of 'good', we need more explicit adjectives for teachers. So instead of trying to decide if I am 'good' or 'not good', I can label myself as an 'open-minded' teacher, set out to live up to this characterization, and then hope I'm in a school where this trait is appreciated.
Teacher Eve, for example, may decide she is a 'caring' teacher, and feel vindicated in her argument with Ced, who she may see as lacking this virtue. How might Ced characterize himself as a teacher?
Or alternatively, and probably an easier option, I can just go with the flow and accept the imprecise adjective. Following this line, let's see how I can answer Khun Yai:
"Fine Aj. Steve. We need a good teacher. Do you have?"
(pause for Steve's crisis around the meaning of the word 'good')
"Of course, Kh. Yai. All of the teachers are good - I trained them!"
A nice piece of self-aggrandizing pretentiousness - go Steve. It might even be true.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.