Thursday, January 10, 2013

what it takes to teach...

Number your parts before you cut.
On Monday, one of my students told me that I'm a good teacher, and so what is that? What are the ingredients of being a good teacher? Some folks think that teaching is an art. Some, on the other hand think teaching is a deliverable service commodity to be bought and sold at volume on the open market. Otto Salomon believed that good teachers had a particular quality that he called "educational tact," but what's that? These days in most of the discussion among politicians, business leaders and administrators, a good teacher is one who is successful at getting good test scores. But are there other qualities of character that make one a good teacher? And that make teaching a meaningful experience?

Measure before you cut the bottom to fit.
I've been curious about Salomon's exact meaning in his use of the word "tact," suspecting that it offers insight into what a good teacher does. I asked my friend Hans Thorbjörnsson, the curator of Otto Salomon's library at Nääs about Salomon's use of the word. Hans was my host and tour guide when I visited Nääs. He's written books in Swedish about educational Sloyd, Otto Salomon and the Sloyd summer teacher training institute at Nääs.

His thoughtful reply is as follows:
I, like you, find the concept “educational tact” (in Swedish “pedagogisk takt”) most interesting. That’s why I have revisited every page in my books written in Swedish by OS, looking for his complete definition of the concept. It must have been especially important to him so I thought I would find some pages exclusively on this subject. But I have found no such definition. Only the following sentence: “Educational tact is, strictly speaking, nothing but the teacher’s faculty/capacity to individualize his teaching”.

In the lines just above this sentence Otto referred to Froebel, this one saying “I have learned a lot from my teachers, more from my comrades, but most from my pupils.” Froebel sees the nursery as his university and the children as his professors. It is only when thinking and feeling like this that an instructor can rise to be a teacher, and from teacher can rise to be an educator (uppfostrare). (Salomon always talks about sloyd as a formatting subject/an instrument to the harmonious development of the child – morally, intellectually, physically.)

The capacity of educational tact is not to be found in every teacher. It is some sort of intuitive feeling for what sort of information, instruction the individual child needs. The good educator has a faculty to create a spirit of understanding and cooperation between himself and the child. He must feel sympathy for each individual child. The educational tact tells the teacher how to act and when to act, not giving too much or too little information, but the exact amount at the exact opportunity. There must be room for the child’s independence and self-reliance, he/she must be given opportunity to solve problems up to his own capacity. This judgement of how to instruct the child A is different from the judgement concerning the child B. That is why individual teaching is so important in sloyd lessons, and why class-teaching is absolutely impossible for an educator with educational tact.
Hans' last line that I've placed in italics is the one that throws me for a loop and explains a great deal about the deficiencies in American education. In wood shop, the success of a student's work is nearly always dependent on some form of personalized individual instruction. That is the point at which the teacher's care for each and every individual student is expressed, and students get that. They recognize when it happens. In their eyes, a good teacher is one who cares deeply and equally about their independence and success. In some classes and in some subjects, teachers can stand at the head of the class and dissertate blindly in the expectation that students will rise or fall or fail based on their attention, comprehension and recollection, without demonstrating any particular concern for the individual needs of his/her students. A teacher with tact would want so much more than that... the opportunity to see that the learning needs of each and every child are met. He or she would grow extremely frustrated with anything less, which perhaps explains why so many teachers leave the field within 3 to 5 years of starting their teaching careers. It's not that they don't have the potential to become good teachers, its that they are not allowed to actually teach.
Then cut the bottom to size, allowing for tongue to fit sides.

Today in my wood shop, and as you can see, I'm making boxes and taking photos of the process.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Sadly, "class teaching" is what is allowed, and a teacher has to be very creative to manage to fit in some individual attention.


    1. A great post Doug! I have followed your blog for some months now after discovering it from Peter Follansbee's blog. I myself am a professional woodworker who also happens to be a part time teacher of the craft to my son' s Waldorf inspired homeschool co-op. I am getting prepared to start up another class in February. We are going to be carving spoons and bowls this session. I get a great amount of i.for from your posts, so many thanks to you!
      More to the point of your post, I can understand this "educational tact" as I see it in action in many teachers throughout the Waldorf school and the teachers at the co-op.

  2. Jon, there are certainly teacher with tact, all over the place. Many in public schools have to work against the system in some way. Waldorf schools have kept many of the old ideas alive, and one friend who works in Waldorf Schools told me about a song they would sing about Pestalozzi. I would like to get the words to that song, as Pestalozzi offered one of the important lines of thought in the development of Educational sloyd.