Conversations and events over the last few weeks have me determined to finally write the entry I’d planned to write quite a while ago on the nature of what it is to be a good teacher. I use the word teacher in its broadest sense, allowing it to encompass what it means to pass on knowledge and wisdom of any sort, and in any situation. I also use it in the more conventional sense, which is to denote a teacher within a system of education, whether it be at the beginning levels as an Early Childhood Educator or within the halls of a university at the level of professor. There are fundamental truths about teaching that apply to every incarnation of the action itself, as well as the vocation.
Before I get started though, I should say that what follows are my observations, things I’ve learned from being both a student and a teacher, and things I’ve learned from the many, many people in my life who have made it their life’s purpose to teach, and teach well.
For a big part of my life, I’ve been fighting the urge to become a teacher of some sort. For over a year now, I’ve been working and teaching in an Early Childhood environment and in so doing have almost convinced myself that perhaps I really should give up the fight, dive in and teach. That said, I’ve never been much a fan of conventional school systems, which is why the environment in which I’ve found myself at present is generally a happy one, where the philosophy is one of learning through play, and emerging curriculum is the name of the game.
Naturally, being a teacher of any sort will (or should, at least) occasion one to think often of what it is to be a good teacher, and how one can best approach certain concepts, knowledge, and how to pass those things on in an effective way. So what is it that makes a good teacher, then? Why is it that some people just seem to “get it” and others never do?
What immediately that comes to mind when I think about what it is to be a good (by which I mean effective and engaging) teacher are the many good teachers that I’ve had over the course of my life, both within a system and without it. Think, for a moment, about the teachers you’ve most appreciated and loved in your life. Chances are that they all possessed certain qualities that made them not only engaging teachers, but engaging people. Thinking back on the supreme set of teachers I’ve had in my lifetime, I see that they have the following things in common: passion, enthusiasm, openness, confidence, patience, a big heart, a firm hand, a willingness to trust, and most importantly: not only a willingness but a hunger to learn, themselves. That last distinction is one of the most important because it may in fact be the very basis for the making of a true teacher; all good teachers were, it seems, taught to love learning, and they make it their distinct business to pass on that love to their students. I’ve come to understand how important that lesson is in the scope of the early years, as children will always have a hunger to learn if it’s fostered at so young an age, but it applies to any level of teaching, and any subject.
Hand-in-hand with that hunger for learning comes a passion and enthusiasm for whatever it is a person wishes to teach. This can be a bit of a sticky wicket if you happen to be a teacher who has landed themselves teaching something of which you are not particularly fond (or that they don’t know well). Putting on a brave face and diving in with a smile does go a long way though, as anyone who’s had a grumpy (self-absorbed, cantankerous, etc) teacher (and we all have, to be sure) will know: their class always sucks, even if you enjoy the material. This follows in every part of life, really — if the person who is charged with demonstrating something to you is not in the least enthused, why would you even begin to care?
In grade ten literature class I was told by my teacher that I should ‘show, not tell’. That little nugget of wisdom was passed on to me in order that it might benefit my writing, but it’s also true of most things in life that one wishes to communicate. A whole lot of words will get you nowhere when it comes to communicating if you don’t have the actions to go with it, and sometimes, the actions are far more important. The passion and enthusiasm of which I speak is a prime example of that lesson in action: there’s no need to tell a student something if you are the very embodiment of that thing. By being the very embodiment of passion and enthusiasm, you can (and will, in fact) change the course of a life; sometimes, without even realizing it. These things are fundamentals of teaching, and woe to the one who tries to teach without them, for they will be as lost as their students will be bored.
If there’s one thing I believe I innately knew about teaching but couldn’t properly articulate until recently, it’s that good teachers all possess a level of personal confidence that makes a student feel secure in their presence, and under their guidance. Confidence is one of the most attractive personality traits that any person might possess in general, but a teacher who is confident in themselves and the material they teach (as shown by their conduct and love of it), will ultimately reach more students and do so more effectively. Of course, not only must they be confident, but they must allow themselves to be open to mistakes. Making mistakes and being able to handle those mistakes in a confident manner is a huge part of the learning process, and teachers who are themselves perfectionists and do not allow for the occasional misstep (either from themselves or from students) will wind up with anxious students who are frightened into obsessive, perfectionistic behaviour on one end of the spectrum, or inaction on the other.
Best paired with that confidence is the patience that should, by all accounts, result from it. Patience allows for mistakes, and will allow a student to build confidence in themselves. Along with this goes a willingness to trust in a student’s abilities. A teacher who does not trust that a student will be able to learn will often end up doing things for that student, spoon-feeding and thereby causing a lack of confidence and a dependence on the teacher for help. And an impatient teacher will often cause an impatient student who is anxious about their abilities. The best teachers not only have patience with students, but also the sort of faith in them that comes from a mutual trust. There is almost nothing more potent than trusting someone to do something, if they’ve got it in their mind to do it. If a teacher trusts a student to learn something or demonstrate something, and if the student thinks highly of that teacher, you can bet your bottom dollar that they are going to try their damnedest to do whatever it is as well as possible. Time and time again, in life and in the classroom, patience and trust from a teacher can bring out the best their students. And there’s no doubt that students will then learn to better trust their teacher, which allows them to be more confident in that atmosphere, and to truly learn and grow. These are all things I’ve learned to articulate from teaching little ones, but they apply so widely to every part of learning and life (what is life without learning, really?), that they serve not only as fundamentals of good teaching, but also of being a quality person.
If you’ve got a person who is all of these things that I’ve mentioned, they’re likely going to approach teaching in their own unique way, and that is the best thing about the best teachers — they don’t do everything “by the book” either in their classroom, or in life. Of course, no interesting or inspiring person ever does everything by the book, and the best ones are so comfortable with deviation from the norm that they can take you on a journey to what seems to be edge of logic and jump off with you, only to have everyone land safely on their feet and walk calmly back to that thing we call civilization. Every single teacher that I’ve truly loved has brought their own personal brand to their teaching and had the confidence to share with their students something that made life more than it was before. Those teachers have the ability to adapt and to create an environment in which their students can feel like they’re really both having fun and learning at the same time. At the Early Childhood level, learning and play are one and the same, and the best teachers at levels beyond that know that that’s the secret to getting through to most students.
All this, of course, brings me to my last point — what most makes a good teacher is a person who can truly see their student and adapt to that student’s needs. It’s a teacher’s job to really know their students as best they can and to use that knowledge to better ensure that their needs are being met, and that their potential is at least on its way to being reached. My opinions on this matter have been formed largely by my mother, who has been teaching children with special needs for longer than I’ve been alive. What I’ve learned most from her is that everyone learns differently and should be approached as such. Some are able to fit into conventional structure, some aren’t, and some learn better without it altogether. Actually being able to see another person (let alone a classroom full of them) is not a particularly easy thing to do, and those who can do it (I’ve had the privilege of meeting a few) have my utmost respect and admiration.
Almost a year ago, I stumbled upon this article, which states that according to thousands of students who were polled on the matter, their most preferred substitute teacher would be Bono of U2.
Given the choice among Bono, journalist Katie Couric, former South Africa President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 26 percent chose Bono as the person they’d most like to see in the classroom as a substitute teacher.
When I first read the article I was a little bit surprised at the results, particularly given that Nelson Mandela was among the options. Of course, as a fan of U2, I would love to see what Bono could do in a classroom. Now, after over a year in an environment where I’ve been “teaching” in one way or another, I have an acute understanding of why Bono came out on top of that particular poll: not only is he a rock star and thus hip and interesting, but he knows the power of inspiration and how to use it, and inspiring students to learn should ultimately be every teacher’s bottom line. I once heard someone say that good teaching is 10% knowledge and 90% good theatre, and there’s really no need to wonder why that’s true. Passing on facts, figures and histories is all well and good, but those are not the things a student takes away from a class — a desire to learn lasts a lifetime while facts and figures can be lost the moment school is out.
Of course, all of this is to say a great big thank you to the inspiring teachers of the world who have the wisdom and vision to think outside the box and create life-long learners in the process — all these words don’t even come close to expressing the importance of what you do.