Published in the Delaware County Daily Times
Delaware County’s Daily Newspaper May 30, 2019
By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist
(As someone who had a 25 year career in educational leadership, I observed hundreds of teachers interacting with students in their classrooms. So…I have often been asked about what makes a great teacher. Below is my answer.)
I was far from being a good student academically in high school. Given my lower social class background and the fact that no one in my family had previously gone to college, too much of the high school curriculum seemed to me to be irrelevant and meaningless.
It was hard to care about or concentrate on things like Algebra, English Literature, Chemistry or History because these subjects had little to do with my daily survival on the streets of Philadelphia. Nevertheless, I struggled mightily to play the academic game and finished high school with a B average. That was the good news.
The bad news was that the scores on the SAT exams (college aptitude test) that I had taken in high school were devastating. The SAT seemed to me to be filled with a bunch of irrelevant nonsense that had nothing to do with my world. So, predictably, I didn’t do well at all on the SATs. If these exams were truly an accurate evaluator of my ability, my chances of academic survival in college would not be very good. I was badly shaken.
Without much hope, I applied to some Philadelphia area colleges. Most of them rejected me as unqualified (or was it unfit) to attend their illustrious institutions. Finally, in the late summer following my graduation from high school, one college said it would take a chance on me. I jumped on that opportunity and enrolled in the Philadelphia’s LaSalle College (not yet a University) in the fall of 1960.
Many new college students at that time believed that freshman composition courses could be a game-breaker for first year students. The conventional wisdom was that vindictive professors were hostile about being assigned to deliver beginner’s courses to the bottom of the academic totem pole. i.e., freshman like me. These professors supposedly took out their wrath on students via arbitrary lower grades.
So, as I started college, I was petrified and with good reason. The dreaded English composition course now stared me in the face. However, by whatever stroke of fate, my first writing course at LaSalle was with a legendary Christian Brother, a kindly, knowledgeable, and as it turned out, very effective teacher change agent who truly shaped my future life.
Brother Clementian was like no other educator I had ever met. To begin, he gave great leeway for his students to choose topics. Incredibly, I was allowed to write about what I knew. I had to write for Brother Clementian three times each week. He took great interest in my creative writing about Philadelphia life and this mattered a great deal to my insecure ego. I may not have been Hemingway or Steinbeck, but Brother Clementian read my work with respectful scrutiny and offered his constructive feedback to me verbally three times each week.
Brother Clementian was always positive! He never failed to give me practical suggestions to improve my different pieces of writing. And there was always a required rewrite for me. Most importantly, Brother Clementian kept telling me that I could someday be a good writer if I worked at it and that I had potential.
Finally, this saintly college professor utilized a motivational grading scale whereby a 10.0 was the highest possible grade. Amazingly, every grade I ever received from Brother Clementian was between 9.0 and 10.0. BUT my writing was hardly that good! This wily Christian Brother had no intention of devastating my budding writing talent with low grades. Brother Clementian was the master of positive reinforcement! His grades were used to build rather than to bludgeon! He made me want to write with his motivation and compliments re my writing. And I got much better at it!
Being in some other freshman English composition course would likely have ended my college career forever. Instead I had somehow fallen into the lap of a master teacher, Brother Clementian.
More than anything else, Brother Clementian‘s constant encouragement and specific advice re my writing improvement gave me confidence that just maybe the SAT was not some divine infallible judge. Perhaps I could survive the college experience academically. After one semester with this magical Christian Brother, I now even hoped that I might be able to become an English teacher. And I somehow managed to be graduated from LaSalle in four years.
Brother Clementian exemplifies the “master teacher” in action. He changed my life path for the better and he shaped my educational philosophy about what constitutes great teaching:
Mediocre teachers are validators. They take students as they come to them, label them, quantify them, and rubber stamp them with a predestined grade. In contrast, great teachers are able to positively change all students who come to them no matter what talents or problems or lack of skills these pupils bring with them. Great teachers foster greater growth and inspire self confidence in the average and high ability students, but also the students who have been written off, the ones no one else wants. Great teachers encourage, inspire, motivate and profoundly impact the lives of students!
Joseph Batory is a past superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District. He is the author of three books and more than one hundred op-ed pieces on politics and education. The article above is adapted with permission from the 2nd book in his autobiographical trilogy, Joey’s Story (Rowman and Littlefield, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD and Oxford, UK).