Teaching to Inspire

Rosanne Liesveld and Jo Ann Miller with Jennifer Robison, Teach With Your Strengths, How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students. New York: Gallup Press, 2005.

In the introduction to this work, the authors discuss how the Gallup Organization has studied the question of “what makes a teacher great.”  The authors argue that teachers can have a greater impact on their students, and therefore society, than their parents.  Due to this conclusion, the importance of the teaching profession can’t be understated.  The main purpose of the book, however, is to explore how “teaching with strengths makes teachers happier, more productive, likelier to stay in the field, and far more successful in the classroom.” (11-13)

Years ago, when I began teaching, I had zero experience.  I had not been through a training program, I had not, other than leading class discussion or guest lecturing in a classroom, taught an entire class period (high school, middle school, or college), and I certainly had never planned out an entire year.  I had, one would think, very little on which to base my lessons in my first semester.  So, like many instructors, I learned on the job.  I did have two advantages that many starting teachers do not – two parents who, between them, had over 50 years of teaching experience.

That fact aside, I still remember sitting outside my first classroom (this was for what was then called World History II), day one, and thinking, “I have a plan, I have a plan, I have a plan.”  I sort of did; I focused on that about which I excelled and had been good at most of my life – my memory.  That particular lesson went ok, once the students got past the idea that the 23 year old in front of them was “in charge,” but I knew that I couldn’t rely simply on memory and storytelling, even if these were two strengths.

This text asks teachers to do just that when attempting to succeed – use your strengths more than anything else and don’t under any circumstances, believe that to be truly good at your job, you must concentrate on your weaknesses.  The authors argue that working on weaknesses in an effort to improve your overall teaching won’t work.  Teachers end up dividing their energy, perhaps become frustrated, and in worst case scenarios, do more harm than good to themselves and their students.

In addition to this overarching philosophy, the book has a lot to say about teaching as a profession that is important for educators and the general public to understand.  According to surveys conducted by Gallup, (as a reminder, Gallup is the publisher so consider this point carefully), whereas 76% of American adults believe that a lack of student discipline is a serious problem in public schools, only 4% of teachers reference the students when asked why they might wish to leave the profession (17).  The authors follow up this statistic with an important observation about how the public (and teachers with little talent at their jobs) assume that students are a captive audience.  This assumption negatively impacts teaching, argue the authors, because effective teaching works with volunteers who are emotionally engaged with learning (17,18).  Perhaps most important, the authors emphasize that to have success, good teachers must “tap students’ innate interests and needs to help them learn” (18).  To bolster this point, Teach describes how mediocrity in teaching can emerge because of a false believe that “anyone can teach” and that while learning more about work for which you have a talent can be rewarding, no amount of advanced education will turn a mediocre teacher into a great one (19, 23).

Starting at the conclusion of chapter one and repeated in additional sections, the text offers prospective and current teachers exercises and case studies, all of which could be quite useful for training classrooms or self-reflective practice.  It wouldn’t be cricket to reveal a lot of the “action items” or “_____ in teachers sounds like this” sections, but I can say that these points, along with the “CliftonStrengthsFinder” are some of the most useful pieces I’ve examined that confirm and expand my thoughts on teaching in quite some time.  Teach With Your Strengths, like a lot of other helpful teaching aids (see Harry Wong, Daniel Pink, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Louis Rubin, Bruce Larson and Timothy Keiper), is most assuredly another arrow for the quiver.

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