Walshe on The Role of the Teacher

‘A poor teacher will get poor results with the very best methods and materials, while a good teacher will get good results with comparatively poor ones. I believe that a good teacher should be able to teach a child to read with nothing more than a mail order catalogue.’

Those words have gained notoriety across the reading-conscious United States in the mid-[nineteen] seventies. They were spoken — with a ring of authority — by Warren G. Cutts, first reading specialist in the US Office of Education. And he added:

‘Now, as always, it is the individual teacher who makes the difference — not the materials, not even the method of reading instruction … we need to produce more “materials-proof” teachers and stop worrying so much about the ridiculous goal some publishers seem bent on — that is, the production of “teacher-proof” materials.’

Cutts’ dramatically simple recipe is in deep antithesis to the complexification thrust on classroom teachers by the massive multi-million dollar American reading industry. It is a rediscovery of the fascinating fact that many teachers are highly successful teachers of reading even though they have no single method, no rigidly prescribed materials and, possibly, no very clear idea of exactly how they get their excellent results.

That towering moral figure in British education, Sir Alec Clegg, is in no doubt as to where to look for an answer: ‘… right personal relationships and right attitudes will do more for education than all the gadgets, kits, tests, workbooks, imposed discipline, and rules in the world.’

What Clegg has said in a nutshell is spelt out in some detail by an educational psychologist Charles M. Rossiter who takes up the challenging question as to why the same classroom techniques will sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. He decides that ‘… the orientation with which a teacher approaches the classroom is far more important than any specific techniques he or she might use.’ He goes on to expound five ‘maxims for humanising education’. Relevant to the tasks of the teacher of reading and writing, they can be summarised here as…

  1. Be concerned with the development of the whole person. Instead of focussing narrowly on skills or content, try to structure educational experiences so that they are many-sided, wholistic, with a range of knowledge and feeling, theory and practice.
  2. Treat students as persons. Approach each class with an openness — as if meeting a group of unique individuals for the first time, instead of having prejudged and categorised these individuals.
  3. Be aware that people only develop through interaction with others. Only thus, indeed, can people — the teacher as well as the children — express and develop their unique natures. As the psychologist Maslow put it in emphasising the enormous influence people have on people: ‘every person is a psychotherapeutic influence or a psychopathogenic influence on everybody he has any contact with at all.’
  4. Know yourself and bring yourself to the classroom as fully as you can. To value one’s students as persons does not mean that one sits back and lets them do as they please. The example of the famous educational psychologist Carl Rogers is instructive here: though well-known for his warm and liberal relationship with his students he always told them of his own interests, his expectations of them, and how the class would proceed; he urged teachers to determine the amount of freedom they feel comfortable with and to run their classes accordingly.
  5. Don’t teach by formula. This statement sums up the other four, under
lining the general message that the teacher’s orientation is more important than any technique. The teacher does not hide behind the role of expert who mechanically dishes out a quantity of knowledge in each lesson; rather the teacher sees each class as a new experience and lets the whole situation, including self and students, influence the way the lesson develops — the way the lesson contributes to the development of every student as a whole person.

Walshe, R.D. 1980. Better Reading/Writing – Now! Ways to Teach the Fundamentals of Literacy. Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association of New South Wales, pp.52-53.