As an administrator responsible for overseeing instruction, I could tell when good teaching was happening in classrooms. Yet while I could see and feel it, I had great difficulty articulating it. Every teacher is different. Every class is different. There is no one way to teach. And certainly no one way to create an excellent educational environment. So what was it that I was seeing and feeling that suggested I was observing an excellent educational environment?
Thankfully I found an answer in the work of Parker J. Palmer, a long-time educator and activist. Palmer makes this profound statement in his book, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey:
“The teacher, who knows the subject well, must introduce it to students in the way one would introduce a friend.”
This was my “Aha!” moment! It made sense! Here was a statement around which I could articulate my understanding of excellent teaching. Teaching is all about relationships. Observing the relationships between the teacher, students, and the subject brought great clarity to what I was seeing and feeling in excellent classrooms. I began doodling triangles that visualized the relationships of teachers, students, and subjects. I walked into classrooms looking through the lenses of these triangles, testing to see if they could hold what I was observing. After many years, I still draw these triangles and find that, yes, they can hold together the most important elements of excellent teaching practice. In this simple framework, there are 3 specific characters and 3 specific relationships between those characters.
The students, the teacher and the subject are the 3 main characters. Though we could take time to discuss each character, in this article we will look specifically at the 3 relationships among them, all three of which play a significant role in good teaching. Emphasizing any one while ignoring another will not lead to good teaching. We’ll look at this triangle of relationships along with a metaphor of trains illustrating the dangers of over-emphasizing any one relationship.
Teacher – Subject relationship
It is critically important that the teacher know his or her subject well. We know that a teacher needs a good grasp on the subject to be an appropriately prepared guide for students. Yet, we also know that we don’t always have the privilege of providing for students a teacher who is an expert in the subject. In many cases, the teacher may be doing his or her best to stay one step ahead of students in knowledge of the subject. Yet, whether experts or not, we don’t want to mislead or misteach students.
Though critical, the teacher–subject relationship is not everything. An over-emphasis on the relationship between the teacher and the subject can be like a train leaving a station right on time, arriving at the next station right on time, but with no passengers left. The engineer (teacher) arrived promptly at the proper destination, but the passengers (students) had jumped off along the way. If we focus on the subject without building a relationship with students, they will disengage from learning.
Teacher – Student relationship
This relationship is truly the foundation upon which all excellent teaching grows. While teachers must know their subject well, they must know their students even better. Students need to know that their teachers are interested in them, care for them, know them, and will take good care of them. Excellent teaching means that the teacher knows the students well, the students know the teacher well, and there is a real level of trust all around. Without a strong, caring relationship, a teacher will have much greater difficulty engaging students in the subject.
Yet, an over-emphasis on the teacher–student relationship can be like party trains at Disney World. They are a great deal of fun but go round and round without ever getting anywhere. The main purpose of teaching has been missed. We can’t focus on the teacher-student relationship to the neglect of the subject.
Student – Subject relationship
The ultimate purpose of our work is to build as strong a relationship as possible between the student and the subject. When we know our students well enough to understand the level of relationship they have with the subject, we can design learning experiences that will allow them to grow into new challenges without defeating them. This is where accurate assessment and engaging instruction take place. Ultimately, excellent teaching occurs when students develop strong relationships with the subject matter.
An over-emphasis on the student-subject relationship, however, can be like an old steam engine train, where students work so hard to feed the furnace with coal or wood that they are not even aware that they are part of a caring learning community. It is important to remember that we teach the whole student and that students’ learning happens in a community experience.
Trains in India – All Three Relationships
My family and I spent a year in India, and I was very impressed with their train system. They were very proud of the punctuality of the system: trains left on time and arrived on time. Even more remarkable, we had several journeys where there were more people on the train at the end of the journey (even without stops!) than there were at the beginning. This is a wonderful picture of excellent teaching. The teacher knows the destination (the subject) well, enjoys great relationships with students, and masterfully builds new relationships between the students and the subject. The learning train arrives at the intended station full of passengers who have enjoyed a great journey!
As you plan lessons this year and seek to grow your students into all God has designed for them, consider how you can foster excellent teaching by strengthening these relationships.
 Palmer, Parker J. To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. HarperCollins, 1993.