What the Best College Teachers Do

Read Time:
3m 23sec


By Ken Bain. Harvard Univ. Press.
207 pp. $21.95

This school year, classes began on August 30.  I bustled in from Nova Scotia at noon on the 30th and that evening taught a humdinger of a class, thoughts thrumming through my mind like the wheels of my Toyota rolling along the Mass. Pike.

What the Best College Teachers Do is sensible, literate, and well meaning. Bain notes, among many other things, that good teachers are humble, know their subjects, and believe teaching is a serious intellectual endeavor. They are also kind. Years ago, when I first started teaching, an old boy told me, “Sam, if you think the best of people, they will give you their best.” The man was right. Once or twice, tricksters have asked me to throw them into briar patches, provoking laughter rather than anger. But all in all, the kids have done well by me.

Bain’s book is good. People who read it will stop and think. Perhaps some will become better teachers. Yet the book lacks poetry. Bain analyzes the mechanics of teaching well, but he doesn’t probe the things that made so many of us teachers. The teaching life is wonderful for many reasons, not all of which occur in the classroom but most of which influence classes.

Bain studied 63 good teachers. Yet we know nothing about them, and, as a result, really don’t care about what they do in the classroom. Did these people have pets and families? What flowers did they plant in their gardens, or did they plant only herbs? In Grace Paley’s wonderful story “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator refuses to face the fact that her father is dying. The father asks her to tell him a story, and she shapes a clever tale, one so witty that it deflects attention from life as it is lived. When the narrator says that whether or not her heroine is married does not matter, the father replies in exasperation, “It is of great consequence.” Life lived beyond the lecture hall is of great consequence and may influence teaching more than any pedagogical technique. A sick child, an alcoholic mother, daffodils suddenly bright in a green dell—such things determine the course of classes.

I studied What the Best College Teachers Do in bits and pieces, and between chapters read portions of Prospero’s Cell (1945), by Law­rence Durrell, an account of his years in Corfu before World War II. Durrell’s book raised my spirits and awakened my imagination. Quick with life, the book invigorated me, not simply perking me up enough to read more of Bain but so stirring me that I taught better the next day (of course, I teach English). Bain’s book resembles a head with its chicken cut off, thoughtful but bloodless. Read Bain’s study, but balance your diet by also reading Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers (1981), a collection of appreciative essays edited by Joseph Epstein.

When anyone writes about teaching, even when I write about teaching, my nose twitches and I become suspicious. Much of what we learn has little to do with the classroom. “Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in “An Apology for Idlers,” “is a symptom of deficient vitality: and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.” So much is unknown about learning and teaching, even after Bain’s years of research. Does the Pentecostal, transforming teacher really exist? Or is she just one of the many platitudinous figures wandering our social minds?

Testimonials of appreciation fall into a pattern, beginning, “You may not remember me, but. . . .” In the middle of the I will never forget you.” After a teacher receives her first hundred of these t know her subject either.

—Sam Pickering

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