What makes a great teacher? Surprisingly, a key to teacher success came to me as I watched the ‘invisible gorilla’ video, which you may have seen. In it, the presenter has you watch a group of college students passing a ball to each other and has you count how many times the ball is passed. (If you haven’t watched it yet, do it now before reading on) What you may have missed in this experiment of selective attention was the large gorilla who appeared in the middle, beat his chest, and left. The ‘gorilla in the room’ is largely ignored.
I recently had such an experience as I watched one of my favorite teachers-are-incredible-people movies, “Freedom Writers.” I have seen the movie many times over and never cease to be inspired by the teacher dedication exemplified by its heroine, Erin Gruwell. Similar stories of successfully teaching the ‘unteachables’ have been celebrated by Hollywood and indeed take place in classrooms around the world every day. However, for the first time I noticed the gorilla.
I was so captivated by the incredible change that Gruwell made in her students’ lives that I did not focus, until now, on the incredible price she had to pay.
In addition to having to take night jobs to support her extracurricular (and at times even her curricular) efforts, her marriage crumbled under the weight of the responsibility she assumed for the welfare of her students. I was once again reminded that great teachers sacrifice well beyond the call of duty. Great teachers do not merely invest their time and talents; they invest their hearts and souls. To the great teacher, teaching is not what they do for a living, it is the very reason they live.
This type of sacrificial teacher devotion changes the way they are perceived by their students. I had always thought that the extra hours invested into their trade makes them better teachers, resulting in students wanting to learn that which they endeavor to teach. I now realize that this equation is not correct. Rather, the devotion of extra hours is noticed by their students, who then realize that if the teacher is so devoted, then it is worthwhile to learn what they are imparting, thus ‘making’ them better teachers. If it is ‘just a job’ to the teacher, then it will be ‘just a class’ to the students. There are very few exceptions to this rule.
Those who wish to enter the teaching profession should be cognizant of this fact. Just as a fireman understands that he will be spending many of his nights sleeping at the station and a soldier understands he will spend long stretches separated from his family, teachers should understand the price of achieving the status of a ‘great teacher.’
Teachers’ families should be aware of this as well. Perhaps a clearer perception of what it takes to truly excel at this most noble of trades will mitigate the damaging effects of a spouse devoted to something or someone other than his or her immediate family.
And, finally, when it comes to teacher appreciation, school administration should be conscious of the fact that stellar teaching is not only the result of natural talent, but rather the culmination of hours upon hours of selfless devotion to the children, and the school should therefore compensate accordingly. Indeed, the entire school community must make sure to fully appreciate the lofty spirit that is the great teacher and ensure that his or her efforts do not go unrecognized and unrewarded.