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ISBN: 9781935552017
What Makes a Great Teacher?
YCteen staff

A round table discussion between teens Ebony Coleman, Kelly Colón, Evin Cruz, Brittany Humphrey, Jimmy Lee, Angelica Petela, Irving Torres, and Renea Williams

How have your best teachers inspired, engaged, encouraged and challenged you? Teens on the staff of YCteen magazine were asked to think this over—then they gathered for a group discussion about the best learning experiences they’ve had.

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As teenagers who willingly gave up six weeks of their summer to attend an intensive writing and journalism workshop, these students are admittedly skewed toward the avid end of the spectrum. But all described both classes that they loved and classes that they hated. From a lively exchange, some consistent themes emerged: Great teachers are imaginative, and expect their students to be, too. They meet students where they are, but ask them to reach higher. They love their subject, and find ways to draw pupils in.

Did you ever have a class that you looked forward to each day?

Renea: An English class. She wasn’t a teacher who played around: When you entered her classroom, she had instructions on the board for you. A couple of months ago, we were reading A Raisin in the Sun and we had to choose a character and give a soliloquy like we were that character, explaining what’s actually going on in the character’s mind. The teacher chose the five best and those students had to go up and read it in front of the class, and the class graded them. It was fun to hear all the stuff that people thought the characters were thinking. I always made sure I got to school early, because it was my first class.

Irving: I had a teacher who made us read 20 books and do 20 book reports during the year. I actually liked it—you got to choose the books, whatever you wanted to read.

Jimmy: Business class. At least once a day, the teacher would explain how what we learn in business class relates to the real world. For example, she told a story about going into a restaurant where the menus were hand-written and looked amateurish. She went home and used Microsoft Office to come up with a menu that was colorful and appealing, and she took it back to them and said, “I can produce more of these for a small fee.” We were learning about Microsoft Office, so her story showed us how that skill translates into daily life. She also brought up personal stories about herself that helped us connect to her, and to what she was teaching us.

Describe a class where you learned a lot.

Kelly: Global history. The teacher’s method was just PowerPoint presentations while we took notes. We went through things really fast, but not to the point where we were lost.

Irving: But some teachers are in a hurry and say to you, “You’re wasting time, because on the Regents…” That makes you really tense, makes you want to explode. It’s not good to just memorize.

Evin: This year I took physics. My teacher made things laid back, so we wouldn’t be like, “Oh my God, this is physics!” She’d draw us as little stick figures, and make all the questions about us: “If Evin was driving a car and he hit a wall, how much force…?” She helped us not focus so much on the Regents, but just try to learn.

Ebony: Global history. We would do a lot of hands-on projects—for example, we had to learn about different religions. She assigned one to each of us, and you would have to learn the intricacies of the religion: how they did this, why they did this, what each part of the temple was—you had to really go deep.

What methods have your teachers used that you would imitate if you were a teacher?

Ebony: I would use visual things. But not boring videos that were produced when TV had just come out. Say it’s global studies and we’re learning about third world countries—give us videos that will touch our hearts. My global history teacher used a lot of videos that almost brought us there. For example, she showed us a video about the Holodomor [a genocide Stalin committed in Ukraine]. You relate more when it’s visual.

Brittany: My English teachers have open discussions on topics that are interesting, and you get into it; you want to have your opinion out there. For example, I remember we got into a big discussion after we’d read Romeo and Juliet. The teacher asked whether anyone could relate to the story personally. There was a lot of back and forth.

image by YC-Art Dept

How have teachers engaged your imagination to help you learn?

Angelica: My global history teacher used to read us ethnic folk tales, and make us illustrate them as we thought things might look like back then. And he made us do a MySpace page for an ancient person, like Cleopatra. My computer teacher helped us design a video game—we drew all the characters, we made the background, we did the coding.

Ebony: In English we studied Twelve Angry Men and we had to write essays on what we’d do if we were in the characters’ shoes. It was almost as if we were in the story, and it actually led to a huge discussion.

How should a teacher manage rowdy students?

Kelly: I think from the first day, the teacher needs to let the students know, “You’re not here to socialize. You’re here to learn, I’m here to teach.” But not be rude about it.

Evin: What works is the teacher staying calm, not yelling, because then you’re losing your cool. And kids prey on that. The moment they see you’re not confident, you’re out of control, they absolutely kill you on that.

How should a teacher engage quiet students?

Brittany: I used to be quiet in social studies. The teacher would pick on me, and I’d be like, “I really don’t know the answer right now!” Eventually, I’d raise my hand a lot just so they wouldn’t pick on me when I wasn’t prepared.

Ebony: There’s a technique to make a student participate without being really forceful. As long as you are able to apply your lessons to something that’s actually current, then that will make students more focused or interested. Even the kids you would think are a lost cause get engaged with the right methods.

There are students at my school who are very quiet, but if you know how their life is, you can use something that relates to them. So say the student’s a hustler, and you know this because when they’re in the lunchroom you hear them all the time. If you have a math lesson, you can apply the lesson to their life. I see that a lot and it works.

Has a teacher ever made you change your mind about a subject you thought you didn’t like?

Brittany: I never really liked science, but I had a teacher who helped me do well. At the beginning of her class, I failed all the tests. But I’d talk to her after class, I’d tell her why I didn’t get it, and she’d help me out. We’d go over worksheets together. Later, I was getting above 80 on my tests.

Evin: I used to not hate poetry, but scoff at it. I was like, “Poetry? What’s the big deal about writing words that rhyme?” But my teacher got me to see that there are different forms and so many ways of expressing yourself within poetry. He got a spoken word poet to come to class and perform, and listening to his poem, I could visualize what he was talking about—Manhattan collapsing in on itself. He showed us a YouTube video of a reading of Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” about the poet’s father dying—it was like whoa, that’s dark; that’s deep. We read one poem that was about cupcakes, but it wasn’t really about cupcakes—that was interesting. All this hidden innuendo. It really changed my view.

A version of this story appeared in Student Voices: What Makes a Great Teacher?, a collaboration between Youth Communication, the College Board, and the National Writing Project.

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