The Good Teacher by Hal O’Leary

The Good Teacher by Hal O’Leary

Male teacher cartoon. Photo attribution K Whiteford

The Good Teacher by Hal O’Leary. As I look back on a long and eventful life and a career in teaching… I have developed some insights into what I perceive are the necessary qualities for good teachers.


As I look back on a long and eventful life and a career in teaching, through peace and war, success and failure, with a tolerance that saw me through it all, I have developed some insights into what I perceive are the necessary qualities for good teachers and how they may be identified and assessed. While my experiences in this respect have encompassed many years and venues, I can point to two periods in my life, one at the beginning and the other near the end, from which, in recalling them, I may have gleaned more of that insight than from many of the others.

The first occurred early on, when I was forced to spend two years as a high school sophomore. I contend that I did not fail but was failed in sophomore English, not once but twice, for my refusal to read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by a teacher for whom I had no love. Ironically, though, I was at the same time writing poetry for a literature teacher whom I did, indeed, love. My poetry was not as an assignment, but as a gift for my muse, Miss Virginia Perryman. Unfortunately, I’m certain that my accursed, aforementioned English teacher had assaulted and continued to assault her student’s sensitivities well into her probable dotage. Promoted to Dean by an administration with no idea of what constitutes good teaching, she was more noted for her ability to discipline through fear and intimidation than for compassionate teaching. Unfortunately, however, it was years later that I discovered that my beloved literature teacher had moved on to a college position at Kent State, where she took her own relatively young life from an indifferent world. It was this experience that helped steer me into a career of teaching myself, either in an effort to live down the dire effects of one or to emulate the other, or both. It began with an opportunity to develop for an arts institute a theatre program consisting of creative dramatics for children, a youth theatre and eventually a community theatre. Then, somewhere amidst this forty-year career (with no college degree), I was solicited by a progressive Dean of Faculty to teach concurrently for eight years at Bethany College.

It was there and then at Bethany, perhaps in an attempt to justify my contention that in high school it was not I but a teacher who failed, I began to question what the criteria for identifying good teaching should be. The first realization was that teaching had to be more than instruction. The simple truth is that no teacher can teach a student who has no desire to learn. Therefore, an ability to instruct, however competent, will find little success without an equal ability to inspire. It was in her capacity to inspire students that my beloved literature teacher succeeded, whereas the English Dean had failed, evidenced by the fact that this high school failure and subsequent college drop-out was ultimately awarded the degree of Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by the same institution and system which he had left as a drop-out sixty years earlier.

This brings us to my second and most illuminating experience, which occurred later in life. It came as a sudden revelation, the same kind of revelation which I had experienced years ago, when my son at age six responded to a request that I had made of him that he was “too busy.” When, with some irritability, I demanded to know how that could be, he (engrossed with his toys) annoyingly replied without so much as an upward glance, “But Dad, I’ve got so much playing to do.” The immediate profundity of that statement cannot be overstated and should not be overlooked.

Although not quite as immediate in recognition of its profundity, the incident I am about to relate began a gradual awareness of how the good teacher might be evaluated in both identifying and assessing his or her competence. Before we do, however, it may be wise to identify those teachers who along with a failed system continue to fail uninspired students. I have found that there are two distinctly inappropriate approaches to teaching, both of which do great harm. One of the more obvious is found in the teacher who relies on strict discipline and conscious intimidation. Close examination of such a practice reveals the teacher’s hidden fear, of both the task at hand as well as his students. This teacher can be identified by fear of emotion and lack of empathy. Control is the primary objective. Any emotional or empathic exchange that might tend to inspire the student is highly unlikely. In the absence of such exchange and the climate it creates, it is difficult to imagine how the inculcation of a desire to learn can take place. Respect is replaced with fear, intimacy is replaced with intimidation, and the teacher becomes an ogre with the student her victim.

At the other extreme we find teachers who need the students more than the students need them. Their approach is to pander in an attempt to solicit students’ love and respect. This unintended deception, however, rarely achieves the desired effect, since the student often proves more perceptive than the teacher. It’s true that these teachers have both emotion and empathy, but to a fault. More often than not, the result is that the lesson being taught is Manipulation and Exploitation 101. Rather than preparing the student for what lies ahead, this teacher has an unhealthy need for the student’s continued dependency. Indeed, the natural curiosity that creates a desire to learn and grow is curbed by the necessity for prolonging the student’s innocence and dependence for no other reason than to satisfy the teacher’s neurotic needs. To identify this type, we need only look for this teacher’s needy attempts to maintain associations long after the student has moved on, we hope, to a better situation.

This revelation came as the result of the second incident I spoke of at the outset. One of my proudest achievements was the establishment of a Performing Arts Workshop. It was an around-the-clock/ten-day affair for high school students on a local college campus. In those ten days, the students composed, designed and produced an hour-long variety show using all facets of the preforming arts, based on a pre-established theme. At about mid-way through the term one night, rather late, there came a knock on my dormitory door. It proved to be a frustrated student seeking guidance for an idea he wanted to pursue in relation to the show. Having received permission to intrude, he began with frustrated, intermittent pauses to struggle with an explanation.

“Mr. O’Leary . . . I’ve got this idea . . . Do you think you can help me? . . . You see, I think that . . . Well, it’s just that I . . . It would be great if I could only . . . You see what I mean . . . I . . . I’ve got this idea . . . I just need to develop . . . (Long silence and then with eyes wide) Never mind . . . I don’t need you anymore.”

And out the door he sped. In analyzing what had occurred that night, I finally came to the realization that the student’s not needing me anymore was perhaps the highest compliment I could have been paid. I discovered that a teacher’s task is complete only when the student no longer feels a need. The continuance of any relationship beyond that has to be one of equality, rather than need. This applies to both the student and the teacher.

Fortunately, I have encountered a number of good teachers who I can only hope represent a trend that will eventually reverse the failure of those teachers who unwittingly, through intimidation or pandering, have made healthy self-appraisals by their students most difficult, if not impossible.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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