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Tyee Books

What Makes a Master Teacher?

Geniuses like Yo Yo Ma and their mentors are profiled in 'Talent Abounds.' For the rest of us sloggers, are there lessons?

By Michael Fellman 7 Sep 2010 |

Michael Fellman is professor emeritus of history at Simon Fraser University. His most recent book is In the Name of God and Freedom: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

Recently retired after 40 years of teaching in a university, I remain mystified about how students learn and what role their teachers actually play in their education. Few students come in with highly notable gifts, and yet most students who complete their degrees are far better educated than when they began. Most can read and reason much more critically, and write quite skillful essays. And most are more sophisticated intellectually, able to deal with complexity and ambiguity much more successfully than university beginners.

Of course I am discussing the 40 or 50 per cent of students who complete their degrees, and in my instance, mainly undergraduate history majors, who have considerable interest in that discipline as well as an aptitude for it. In a way I am discussing something of an elite.

What was my role in the development of any particular student? In truth I can answer that question for only a very few. I discouraged a following -- generally trying to dissuade any student from taking more than two courses from me, as I believed they ought to broaden and get out of their comfort zones to develop their individual skills. Most students just move on as they should without providing much in the way of feedback, so one cannot know the impact of their relationship with their teachers, one way or the other. More do well in life than end up in jail, but how success and failure relate to their educations is a subtle and essentially illusive question. It is all a great mystery.

Robert F. Arnove narrows down the enquiry into the effectiveness of teaching by focusing on a couple of dozen star students and teachers, a tiny elite at the apex of the educational system. Although this conforms to the widespread desire to focus on success and celebrity, it provides a highly unrepresentative sample of students and teachers, from which one should be cautious about drawing general conclusions.

Responsive to students' gifts

Recently retired from the education faculty at Indiana University, Arnove focuses mainly on performances of the most notable teachers and students in Indiana's superb music faculty, to which he devotes seven of his 12 chapters. Another chapter concerns the excellent Indiana swim team (from which Mark Spitz emerged), and others concern dance, math, chess and high-end chefs. These are all fields in which stars emerge in rather obvious ways, unlike more subtle work forms such as history or journalism. Arnove steers clear of the complex sociology and politics of mass education -- he appears to believe that what applies to geniuses has general application to education more broadly, or, alternatively, that only the truly gifted matter.

Skillful teachers, Arnove concludes, are non-dogmatic and responsive to the gifts of individual students. They guide rather than impose, and lack any desire to create duplicates of themselves. On this point I am in total agreement. I never ceased to be amazed by all the teachers whose attitude was "my way or the highway," and who punished imagination and dissidence, thus truly undercutting their students' academic freedom. Such teachers, far more common than we would like to believe, kill talent.

"Based on years of experience," Arnove concludes, "master teachers and coaches have an ability to detect immediately what technical or conceptual problems students have, and what students are capable of, and the precise challenge or set of tasks that will enable them to reach the next level of performance. They also have an ability to break down complex problems into specific tasks, eventually leading to peak performances. No matter how innately talented or practiced the student may be, the master teacher refines and polishes initial capabilities. In some, but few, cases they may shout, scream, and do outrageous things. But mostly, they are gentle, kind and loving mentors who are likely to care as much about the student as a human being as they do about technical virtuosity and the qualities of performance and work."

Well, this educational model is a sort of Weberian ideal type, the best of teachers working with the most gifted of students in a seamlessly positive manner. At Indiana's music performance school, which attracts prodigies such as Vancouver's own enormously gifted violinist, Corey Cerovsek, and the greatest cellist of his generation, Yo-Yo Ma, who was taught by one of the greatest cellists of his generation, Janos Starker, such fantastically positive education may well have worked for the best and brightest. And yet, in many respects such off-the-top-end-of-the-scale students need the least from their teachers. Starker himself concludes about Ma that "because of physical problems with his back... and long fingers [he] plays in a way that... basically [goes] against all principles, but he plays terrifically." All his teachers left him alone, Starker concludes, "because he was a terrifically gifted young man."

Teachers as 'facilitators rather than creators'

Although most of the mentors Arnove interviewed for this book spent a great deal of time discussing with him just how effective they were, I am glad he included at least one skeptical voice, that of the violin teacher Miriam Fried, who concluded that "the more I teach the more I realize that we overestimate ourselves. We are facilitators rather than creators in any sense."

Facilitation includes, at best, sensitivity to the psychological duress of young adulthood. But it also concerns career-making, honing competitive skills (a subject that Arnove mostly avoids or puts in the negative), and the ability to help foster self-criticism to the point of perfectionism. But such success as he celebrates also demands enormous, often ruthless ambition, and the ability to be hardheaded in business choices. Indeed the potential star students seek out the most famous teachers at the best places in order to strive in their careers at least as much as in their art, and such scarce teachers are highly selective in the first instance, and then drive out students who do not seem to them to be developing their promise.

There is no discussion here of those who wash out of this elite paradigm, or who are fine but ordinary -- that is to say typical -- or who barely make it through, those who are almost certainly the vast majority, compared to which the stars are the scarce exception. There is no discussion here of second violinists in the Spokane Symphony. If one seeks to generalize realistically about education, the norm is worth at least as much discussion as the rare exception, the hugely gifted.

When I reflect on my own teaching experience, if I want to feel good, I can ignore almost all of my students and focus on the few stars I have taught who have gone on to sterling careers in American history, my field. I pushed them to enter graduate programs in the United States, from which their degrees would be of far greater value than a Canadian degree, even if their goals were to be hired back in Canada, so I cannot discuss mentorship at the Arnove level. I have mentored doctoral students and young professors from other institutions who have sought me out to respond to their work after reading mine, and I have served as well as a reader of manuscripts for journals and book publishers. Although most are hard working but not terrifically creative, the best of this cohort are among the sort of elite Arnove discusses. Yet most of my most gifted undergraduate and master's level students figured out that the doctoral road was long and hard and employment prospects in academia rather dim at best. Almost all of them ended up going to law school. And others went out into what is to this old teacher the unknown. I don't have a clue about their later lives.

In one case, one of the very best, who I encouraged to go to grad school in history, chose the law; 15 years later he sought me out to tell me that he had made a terrible mistake, that he hated the law and deeply regretted not going on in history, but that now he had a family to support. This not unusual path is excluded from the Arnove model.

Students I have mentored

Of the few former students of mine who have become successful professional historians, let me tell two stories. The first was the son of a well-known professor of education at SFU, who had an enormous ambition to become a historian. Yet although I found him competent, a solid B+ student, I did not sense that he was especially talented, and so when he asked me to support his application to grad school I was reluctant. I was not at all sure he could cut the mustard. That is a tough thing to tell a student, even if you are quite certain of your judgment based on decades of teaching.

Well, he ignored me and now he is one of the most promising environmental historians in Canada, teaching at a major university in Ontario. After leaving SFU, he had become the star student at his graduate school, and he made sure I was invited there to give a well-endowed lectureship, where he treated me with great warmth and intelligence. He is a gentle man, but I understood his point, and I told him then, and have told him since, that I was dead wrong about him and that I am sorry. Yet I sometimes think that I remained a mentor to him, if something of a nightmarish mentor, because he was tough enough to show me that I was wrong. And maybe there were other things of value in my teaching for him despite my colossal failure to support him at a crucial point in his career. The student/teacher relationship takes many forms! But bad, bad, bad on me.

In another notable case, my former student has become a professor in a Big 10 university and one of the most promising young scholars of the history of American religion. Right from the start, this student exhibited incredible energy and flair in his work. When I would criticize his writing, closely and frankly, he always could turn my queries into improved work. And we would argue endlessly about religion -- he the believer, me the opposite. I was afraid that he would become a dogmatist of a very high calibre, but he has proved me wrong. Whatever his private faith, he is a wonderfully skeptical historian of religion. This guy, like my other very best students, is full of confidence as well as talent. I am not the independent variable in their lives; they are. Such students would have gone a long way without me and I am just glad I was along for the ride.

But other equally gifted students who did not click with me did so with other teachers, perhaps in other disciplines. And one should never underestimate the degree to which students teach one another, despite or in addition to their relationships to their teachers, a point Arnove fails to stress. Good students will seek out what they need, and they have the capacity for continual growth and the strength to handle the inevitable reverses in life. As between nature and nurture in all this, as between formal education and innate ability, the older I get the more I believe that nature will out, but only if the student has independent strength of character as well as sufficient ability, and only if she or he is not crushed by the educational establishment.

Yet for me, the greater successes have been with the less-than-gifted students of the sort who have to fight their previous educational backgrounds. When I was first teaching, I recall, I had one working class, first generation university student who turned in an essentially illiterate paper in the third week of the semester (I required an early performance to identify just such problems). Well, he came to me and, far from being defensive or angry, the norm in such cases, told me he knew he couldn't write and that he had been to a terrible high school in the Fraser Valley, where the English and social studies teachers just passed him through without ever writing a note of comment on his work. He asked if he could rewrite his paper with my criticisms in mind.

I certainly agreed to that highly unusual request. This rewrite improved his work from a dead flunk to a C-. Then he came back to my office once more and asked to rewrite yet again, after we went though everything line by line. The next draft was a B-. We were up to the second half of the semester by this point, so he then wrote two more brief papers, the second of which was an A-performance that was quite imaginative as well as literate. This chap took my breath away. In 10 weeks he had gone from washout material to a fine student. And I know that I had had something to do with it, but only because he had the fortitude and innate ability to come to grips with his previous limitations.

God only knows where he ended up, but I have never felt more positively about my role as teacher. He might not win the Pulitzer Prize or become rich or famous, but he is better for that semester in my classroom.

Those who grab the golden ring

I agree with Arnove that talent abounds, but I don't believe that discussing the most talented one 10th of one per cent tests that case. Luck, ambition, prior familial and elementary school preparation and, most importantly, wealth and social class help explain why the very most elite people in our society have the best chance to grab the golden ring. Most of the privileged fall by the wayside, but they have far greater opportunities from birth right through the educational system than middle class and working class students.

For me, talent abounds, but most students realize little of it, because their chances are limited from the moment of birth. I always noted to my students that Burnaby has about the same population as Athens had citizens during its Golden Age. Of course in Athens the slave majority and women had few opportunities, but there was something in the structure of that tiny society that produced and nurtured an amazing number of gifted individuals who made their mark on the ages.

It stands to statistical probability that a second Aristotle currently lives in Burnaby, and a Sophocles and so on, I told my students. But that second Athens in Burnaby has not occurred. Therefore something has prevented such a renaissance. I am pretty sure the talent is there, but that it has not developed. If, as I believe, nature should out, there must exist hindrances in the educational and social environment that prevent abounding talent from emerging. By Arnove's standard, this leads me to conclude that our educational system is an enormous failure, with very, very few exceptions. Abounding talent nearly always squandered would be closer to the mark.

However, if one looks for more modest levels of accomplishment, the system produces many competent and productive people whose lives are better for their educations. Their teachers may have contributed modestly to these life successes. In the best of all worlds, all those reams of latent talent would flourish and we would live in peace and harmony and true democracy. Unfortunately, this is a utopian prospect. So which standard should we use to measure educational accomplishment, widespread competence or elitist stardom?  [Tyee]

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