Even though metaphors for teaching abound, there's always room for another, and Kim Paffenroth presents a novel one—Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz. He starts by ruling out the other characters in this much-loved tale. Dorothy is the student along with peer learners Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion. They encounter the Wicked Witch of the West who's good at discipline, giving orders, and enforcing them. Paffenroth notes that those characteristics can be seen in some teachers, and they're not inherently wicked, but they're not what make master teachers.
Even though metaphors for teaching abound, there's always room for another, and Kim Paffenroth presents a novel one—Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz. He starts by ruling out the other characters in this much-loved tale. Dorothy is the student along with peer learners Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion. They encounter the Wicked Witch of the West who's good at discipline, giving orders, and enforcing them. Paffenroth notes that those characteristics can be seen in some teachers, and they're not inherently wicked, but they're not what make master teachers. The three students also encounter the great Oz, who is loud and authoritatively impressive—a “sage on the stage,” according to Paffenroth. “But mere authority and outrageous spectacle simultaneously close off some avenues of communication and learning; they may be good for emboldening or brow-beating, but are not as good for introspection and enlightenment” (p. 259).
That leaves Glinda, “the goody-two-shoes who is barely in the movie and who does not display any particularly strong magical powers” (p. 259). But Glinda responds to Dorothy in ways Paffenroth believes illustrate the characteristics of master teachers:
The master teacher always treats the student as a peer (or at least a peer in training). Glinda greets Dorothy with a question: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” The question assumes Dorothy is a witch, therefore an equal of Glinda's. Students should not be treated as underlings; they should be considered junior members of the community, not followers or subordinates. There are important things that Dorothy needs to learn: what her shoes do, that trees talk, and that not all witches are old and ugly. But Glinda isn't concerned about all that. She sends Dorothy on her way with an admonition about fellow witches. “Begone! Before somebody [another junior witch] drops a house on you.” Master teachers do not treat students like children, protecting them from every potential danger and answering their every question.
The master teacher acknowledges and encourages students' abilities but lets them learn how to exercise them on their own. “Glinda tells Dorothy that her red slippers must be very powerful but does not tell her what they do” (p. 260). In fact, Glinda gives Dorothy very little in the way of instructions for travel down the yellow brick road. Not only is it important for Dorothy and her friends to learn for themselves what they can do, it is important that teachers (if they want to be master teachers) let go of their egos “and know the student's ultimate goal or success is their own.” (p. 260) Master teachers do not attempt to mold students into shapes the teachers see as useful and valuable. They “let students grow into and realize the shape they were meant to be.” (p. 260)
The master teacher is often not equivalent or even similar to anyone the student has encountered before. Glinda's comments reinforce the idea that Dorothy is skillful and powerful. It is Dorothy who needs to learn how to be on her own, how to trust and believe in herself. Paffenroth writes, “I am beginning to see how college is like Oz: it is a place where qualities and skills that went unrecognized back in Kansas are now displayed and cultivated and amplified” (p. 261). Students are not used to teachers who believe in them and focus on their potential.
The master teacher is not a surrogate parent but a more distant figure. Glinda is like a set of missing parents. She's mostly absent in the story. But like parents, she's still powerful and mysteriously present. The master teacher is also not a replacement parent but like a parent provides inspiration and motivation. “You have the ruby slippers, now go do stuff!” (p. 261). “I think . . . Glinda shows us in a way we may at first find disappointingly unheroic and bland: distant but still present, powerful but not domineering or forceful, empowering but not doting or interfering. . . .” It's a quiet, mostly hidden path that requires dedication and bravery, but it's a path that helps students “grow into what they were meant to be—independent, virtuous thinkers and actors, ready to surpass us in all things” (pp. 261–262).
This is a different view of teaching and a bit unconventional, but still worthy of our consideration. Teaching is a complex act that veers out in multiple directions. It's good to let our thinking go to new places every now and then, and this piece is delightful to read and full of humor and intriguing comparisons.
Paffenroth, Kim. (2017). The best teacher is like a famous mage everyone knows—just not any of your favorites. Teaching Theology and Religion, 20 (3), 257–262.