Amazing Teachers

I've been teaching Northern Shaolin as a performing art in public schools for about 12 years.  A lot of these classes are residencies in which I visit an elementary school class once a week for an hour for a period of anywhere form 8 to 35 weeks depending on funding.  I usually do back to back classes in a gym or a cafeteria and sometimes outdoors.  The number of students ranges from 15 to 35, usually in the mid-20's.  Current rules require that a credentialed teacher be present in the class while I am teaching. Some teachers ignore this rule and leave their students with me.  Some sit in the corner grading papers and ignore what is going on.  Some try to "help" me teach.  Some, by their very presence,  inhibit students or cause over reaction in students. Some try to actually take the class as if they were a student themselves.  Some stay close by to help manage a student or two they personally have trouble with.  Some try to help me manage student behavior in general.  Some watch attentively and nothing else.  I've gotten a close look at a large number of teachers, good, bad and mediocre.  Let me describe two of the best teachers I've worked with.

One teaches second grade.  She stands tall and has a slight southern accent.  I get the sense that she is very "direct" because she doesn't move her head very much when she is talking to me.  She also has a generous smile, and has lately been walking with a limp.  Her second grade students consistently dominate the fifth graders in the school wide spelling bees (unless the fifth grade competitor was fortunate enough to have had her in the second grade!).  I generally meet with teachers the week before the residency begins, and that was the case with this teacher.  I remember very clearly how she brought her students into the cafeteria and then said to me, "Ok, then I'll be back in an hour."  A bit surprise, and worried, I said, "Really, you're just going to leave?"  "Yes," she replied, "You seem extremely professional and experienced and I'm certain my students will behave well."  I've had the opportunity to teach her students 5 or 6 years in a row and they consistently learn at nearly twice the rate of other students.  They are attentive, enthusiastic and supportive of each other.  They are also, and this is frankly amazing, capable of doing much more physically challenging material than most classes.

Another teaches third grade.  He is tall and has a buoyancy about him.  He wears bright colors, like pink and orange, and rides a big fast motorcycle.  He teaches bilingual Japanese and by the end of the year his students are conversant.  He has a full drum set in the room too.  I've worked with his students 5 years in a row and whenever I've had a reason to walk into his room, his students have accosted me with some request.  For instance, a student with a small note book in hand and a pencil behind her ear asked me one time, "Would it be OK if we estimated your height weight and shoulder width and then measured you?"  "Sure...I said."  Seconds later I'm surrounded by students with pads of paper in their hands and pencils behind their ears calling out estimates as they write them down.  Then they cooperated in the "fun" of measuring and weighing me, sharing in the shock and delight of recording real numbers next to guesses.  This teacher actually takes my class as if he were a senior student, sometimes reminding "other" students what the proper way to be a student is.  The second year I taught his class he told me that after taking my class the year before, he got his wife and kids involved in martial arts and that it is now something they love to do together as a family.  His students also learn at nearly twice the rate of other classes, they are comfortable asking complex questions about history and culture and tend to bring out aspects of my curriculum I didn't see coming.


I just finished teaching a 15 week residency with two back to back classes, a 4th and a 5th grade.  These are "new comers," meaning they don't speak English, so I have to teach them without much spoken language.  The 15th week was a 20 minute performance for some parents and the rest of the school.  It went really well.  These two teachers are very happy with my teaching (their both delightful to work with too by the way!).  A comment I often hear is that students are better able to focus in the classroom when they take my class.  My theory about this is that I value not-focusing in my classes as an appropriate way to learn martial arts.  When students have a context in which they are valued for being un-focused they are much more willing to accept and try to improve their ability to focus in other contexts.  I've worked at this school for 6 or 7 years, this year on the 14th week a student teacher with a PE credential happened to notice my class and decided to watch.  She was very excited about what I was doing; acting, dance, music, martial arts, strength, flexibility, complex motor memory, spacial awareness, cultural awareness, improvisation, interpersonal cooperation and competition.  She came back for the performance and expressed incredulity at the notion that I had only been working with them for 14 hours and had gotten them to develop, memorize and perform so much material.

I dare not compare myself to these amazing teachers but I can at least hope that some of their magic has worn off on me.

These two teachers teach at different schools.  It has occurred to me that if I had kids of my own I would fight to get them in these two teacher's classes.  But alas, there is a lottery for schools in San Francisco and the chances of getting either one of them is low.  Neither of these amazing teachers are doing what they do for the money or the pensions, ('though I do sense they cherish their long Summers!)  but I can't help thinking that if these two teachers were paid in some relationship to how much they are in demand, how much they are worth, that other teachers of this caliber would come out of the wood work, perhaps from other professions.  I don't want to dwell on the negative, but it seems worth noting, that as good as these teachers are, there are teachers out there who are as bad as these teachers are good.  And in the case of bad teaching, time spent in their damage.


Reflecting on my own experience as a teacher is truly hard to do.  Can I trust my evaluations of myself?  Can I trust the evaluations of others?  Can I even hear them?  Here is my thought.  There are somethings that are important for students to learn that I am not particularly good at transmitting.  And there other important things which I'm an absolute marvel at transmitting.  I ought to be finding people to collaborate with on teaching.  A group of teachers who know and value each others strengths would be an amazing resource for students.