Here is the full transcript of educator and writing coach Azul Terronez’s TEDx Talk: What Makes a Good Teacher Great? at TEDxSantoDomingo conference. This event took place on November 12, 2016 at Santo Domingo.
Azul Terronez – Educator and writing coach
I’m obsessed with the question: “What makes a good teacher great?” I’ve collected 26,000 responses to this question, in eight different schools, from the poorest schools in Los Angeles, to suburban schools in Texas, to elite private schools abroad. And after 24 years of teaching students, I’m still perplexed by this question.
Today, I’m going to teach you the lessons I learned from those thousands of students, and learn what I found out from them if we just listen to students. The thing about it is that during my time of asking kids this question, I realized that we don’t ask this question for a particular reason: schools are afraid. Based on fear, they don’t really want to know what kids think. Partially because they don’t think kids will take it serious. I’m going to share with you one of the most profound quotes, answers to this question that I’ve ever received.
[A great teacher eats apples]
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t this prove my point? “Great teachers eat apples.” When I first saw this, I dismissed it as silliness, but it appeared again and again. So I thought, “There’s got to be something to this, but what are they trying to tell me?”
So one day, I decided I would start eating apples. I ate them in the morning, at lunch, during class, in the hall. Kids began to give me apples. They’d see me eating them and say, “You’re eating an apple!”
They would smile, and I would smile back. It wasn’t until I understood that kids wanted to see me as somebody who is willing to receive a gift from them, that the apple was a symbol for our relationship. There was goodness in that, and trust. But for a long time, I wasn’t listening and I hadn’t understood this.
[A great teacher is chill]
They have their own language. When they say, “A great teacher is chill,” what they really mean is: “Don’t take it too serious. Be calm in all situations. Don’t get overwhelmed.” They have a way of speaking to us about what they really want to tell us, but we have to listen. Right?
I’m the father of two grown kids. They’re out of school now and in college. But when they were at home and they were teenagers, I had to learn a whole new language. When they would come home from school, I might ask them: “How was your day?” and they would say, “Fine,” which usually meant: “It was not bad. It was pretty good. Nothing happened eventful. I probably learned something. Maybe I didn’t.”
But if they came home and said, “Fine,” what they meant was: “It wasn’t really great, but don’t ask me, because you wouldn’t understand anyways.” If I asked them how their day was and they said “OK,” what they were trying to tell me was: “It wasn’t good at at all, and you should probably ask me more questions, but don’t expect me to answer.”
Kids have their own language; they have their own way of thinking. They want us to think like them and understand what’s inside of their head. They have so many ways of thinking that things are great. They want us to see their world inside of them. But they don’t want us to act like them; they want us to be calm and protect them and keep them safe.
Kids have a way of communicating, and adults just haven’t spent the time listening. But what if we did? What if we really listen deeply to students? One of the things I noticed after all the years of collecting these responses is that there is patterns that emerge.
When I asked the question of what makes a good teacher great, oftentimes I heard, “A great teacher loves to teach”, 70 percent of the time, the quote or the answer that followed was: “A great teacher loves to learn.” The reason this is significant is they don’t see this happening. They don’t see teachers learning in front of them. They see them teaching, but they wish they would learn along with them.
Think about it. Principals hire teachers to be content experts, to have all of the knowledge, not to be learners. But what if they did? What if you showed up in the classroom, and the teacher had something prepared, said, “I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do today, but I can’t wait to learn with you.”
Or that they saw their teacher struggle through something they didn’t actually know and then eventually discover the answer. Kids want to be inspired by this idea that learning is important. But they don’t see it in schools.
[A great teacher isn’t a teacher]
When I saw this quote: “A great teacher isn’t a teacher,” I actually was a little bit offended. “What do you mean?! I’m a teacher!” They’re like, “We know.” What they were trying to tell me is: a great teacher isn’t in the classroom. Think about it. Think about a time that you have some enduring understanding, a time when you learned something that you still remember and you use to this day, like throwing a baseball or riding a bike, I remember learning to ride a bike from my mom when I was five years old. She took off the training wheels of my bike, she got behind me, and began to push.
And we ran, and we ran, until she finally let go, and I began to ride a bike. That’s what I did; that’s how I learned to ride a bike. I can still ride a bike to this day from that moment.
But can you imagine if I tried to learn to bike from my mom in a classroom, what it would look like?
[Copy this Bike riding 101]
“Son, first, you need to learn all the parts of a bike. There’s the pedals and the crank, and there’s a chain that turns the wheel. You have to have a significant force; once the force has enough momentum, you can keep your balance. That’s how a bike works. I want you to learn all the parts, be able to label them and draw them. Then you’re going to learn and write a research paper about the history of bike riding. All the important elements, the adventure, the development of bikes. And at the end of that, you’re going to take a final examination. If you pass and get an A, you can ride a bike.”