Anyone who wants to be a good teacher–or train teachers to become excellent–should study great teachers and great teaching. Most of us can recall an influential, great teacher who stands out as a model of what a good teacher should be. Are great teachers born or made?

I think great teachers are both born and made. A great teacher almost always has been born with a constitution, a proclivity, a gift that grants him or her the potential to become a great teacher. But such a person won’t become a great teacher automatically. The gift requires training, experience, models and work. Great teachers are naturally students of teaching, they pay attention to the craft of teaching, and they enjoy studying and learning from other skilled teachers.

To acquire teaching ability, there is nothing quite so effective as seeing a great teacher teach, except to have that same great teacher coach, critique and mentor the teacher-in-training. If you are a teacher, find and emulate the great teachers around you. Seek out training, feedback and mentoring.

Apart from a dynamic mentorship, there are still some other valuable teachers available, just not in the flesh. These teachers exist in books. Some of them are old teachers in old books. Often these are the best–or we would not still find them living in printed books. Two such book-teachers are Gilbert Highet and Jacques Barzun. Both of these men taught at Columbia University in New York City. Highet was a teacher of classics and Barzun a historian. Barzun is still living at over 100 years of age. Barzun’s most recent book (written in his 90s) is the acclaimed Dawn to Decadence, a brilliant history of the last 500 years. Highet is well known for his book, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, originally published in 1949. Both of these men were prominent scholars and writers in their respective fields. Both of these men were also gifted teachers and students of the teaching craft. In fact, each of them wrote a superb book on education: Highet wrote The Art of Teaching (1950) and Barzun wrote Teacher in America (1944). A collection of Barzun’s essays on education was also published in a book entitled Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991). All three of these books are profoundly insightful as they represent the thinking of two educators steeped in the classical tradition but seeking to renew it and adapt it for their own (and to a large degree our) time. In my next posts, I will review these books and share some of the important insights I think they contain. In the meantime, if you are a teacher seeking excellence find a way to get these books.
Christopher Perrin