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What It Takes to Be a Teacher

There are certain personal qualities that all teachers need. For example, teachers must enjoy being surrounded by young people. They must genuinely care about their students, and have the desire and willingness to help them learn. They must be enthusiastic about teaching, so they can lead and inspire. They must be understanding, and perhaps most important of all, must be patient. In fact, most teachers agree that the most important quality is an above-average supply of patience.

Teachers must also be able to relate well with all kinds of students. Children come from many different ethnic backgrounds, religions, and races. They also come from different economic circumstances—some have very poor families, while others have wealthy families. Teachers must treat all students fairly and equally, and not be prejudiced or biased in favor of one particular group.

Learning to Teach

Teachers need different kinds of education and training based on where they teach, what subjects they teach, and the ages of their students. All teachers must attend a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree. The courses they take often vary based on the college. In most cases college courses are related to what aspiring teachers plan to teach. For instance, someone who wants to teach biology must earn a certain number of college credits in biology, as well as in other science courses. Someone who plans to teach elementary school must learn about a variety of different subjects, as well as take classes that focus on elementary education. Special education teachers need to take courses in psychology, sociology, and specialized subjects that deal with different types of disabilities.

College students who plan to become teachers are assigned student teaching jobs, usually during their last year of college. This is their first opportunity to apply what they have learned to the real world of teaching. The assignment usually lasts for a semester, and student teachers are supervised by senior-level teachers who act as their mentors and coaches. Once students earn their college degree and finish their student teaching assignments, they must complete another step before they become teachers. All states require teachers to be certified. They achieve certification by completing the required college program, and by passing a state certification examination.

Even after people become certified teachers, their education does not end. Most states require teachers to keep their knowledge current by continuing their education through workshops and classes. Also, teachers usually have to retake tests every few years to keep their certifications current. Some states, such as New York, allow teachers to become permanently certified. To do this, they must earn advanced degrees, such as a master’s or doctorate (Ph.D.), work in teaching positions for several years, and pass a special examination.

Building Relationships

Teachers learn a lot of valuable information while they are in college. However, they learn most of what they need to know by actually teaching. One of the first lessons teachers learn is the importance of building good relationships with students. No two students are alike, and the best teachers are those who get to know their students personally. Fourth-grade teacher Mary Cotterall says that building relationships with students is important if teachers want to do their jobs well. She says that when children misbehave in class, or get bad grades, it may be because something is troubling them. Perhaps they have problems at home, or did not have breakfast before going to school. She explains: “Children suffer from stress too. I had one little girl who was terribly upset because it was her birthday, and neither of her parents remembered to send a birthday treat to school. I’ve had other students who recently lost a favorite pet. Things like that are difficult for children, and it can affect their ability to learn.”4

Personal relationships between teachers and students are important for older students, too. High school teacher Darci J. Harland chose education as her career because she wanted to make a difference in the lives of teenagers. She discusses her perspective on building relationships: “The first year… I did not have time or the energy to really get to know my students. The second year, however, I was able to reach out a bit more. This is [so] rewarding! It means so much to me when students confide in me, or just tell me about themselves outside my classroom.”5

Dealing with Problems

All teachers wish they never had behavior problems with their students. However, students do sometimes get into trouble and teachers must be prepared to deal with them. Discipline and order are extremely important, and good teachers know that students must respect them as authority figures. Harland says that all students benefit from discipline, and all students want it—even if they may not know it. “We know that the ‘good’ student who wants to learn appreciates a disciplined classroom, but even the trouble-causers and attention-seekers like discipline. They all may not admit this to you, but there is a satisfaction in knowing the standards that are set in a classroom day after day are constant.”6 Harland also says that once teachers give up control to students, it is impossible for them to get that control back.

The Teacher as Coach

Teachers deal with different challenges based on the ages of their students. However, no matter how young or how old their students are, teachers must be able to motivate them. The more motivated students are, the more they will want to learn. This can be challenging for teachers, because students often do not understand why they need to learn certain subjects. So, teachers must try to create interest and excitement in subjects that students may not normally find interesting.

Sometimes teachers motivate students by encouraging them to participate in extracurricular activities. Eddie Wexler, a history teacher and debate coach in Richmond, California, formed a debate team at the school where he teaches. The school’s area is extremely poor, and it is located in a high-crime area. Many students are not interested in learning and do not do their work. However, those who are involved in debate have dramatically improved their grades. Some have become straight-A students. Also, they have become more motivated to learn and have better attitudes about school. Students who once considered dropping out of school are now determined to graduate from college. Wexler believes that debate has transformed his students’ lives: “Debate has helped my kids find their voices. And now, in a society that has pretty much ignored them, they will have a greatly improved ability to make themselves heard.”7

Most teachers say that to do their jobs well, they must be more than teachers. They must also be psychologists, coaches, mind readers, and drill sergeants. Teaching school is not an easy job, and sometimes it can be difficult. However, there are many talented, dedicated teachers who believe it is the best job in the world.

4 Mary Cotterall, interview by author, July 18, 2002. fn5. Darci J. Harland, “Discipline as a New Teacher.” www.iloveteaching.com. fn6. Harland, “Discipline as a New Teacher.” fn7. Quoted in David Ruenzel, “Making Themselves Heard,” Teacher Magazine, April 2002.

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