A discussion of how to be a good teacher sounds a little narrow – and probably not very relevant to most of us. Few of us want to be a school teacher, instructing children in some narrow academic subject or other, which is what we overwhelmingly associate with the word ‘teacher’, the person in a rather frayed jacket in front of the class, the type who bored us rigid for long stretches of our early years.
However, teaching is far from being something that we only need to learn if we’re contemplating a career in education. Considered properly, teaching – by which we mean, the vital business of getting an important idea from one mind into another – is one of the most crucial life skills that any of us ever require. Every one of us, whatever our occupation, needs to become a good teacher, for our lives constantly require us to deliver crucial information with grace and effectiveness into the deep minds of others.
We can admit – quite candidly – that most of us have probably started off by being quite bad teachers. This is nothing to be ashamed of, like most things, teaching can, and must be learnt. What, then, are some of the prerequisites of the good teacher? Here is a start to the list:
1. The good teacher never blames another person for not already knowing
It seems paradoxical – once it is pointed out. But the truth is we often get very annoyed by the fact that another person doesn’t know something yet – even though we have never actually told them what it might be.
Certain ideas can seem so important to us, we simply can’t imagine that others don’t already know them. We suspect they may be deliberately upsetting us by pretending not to have a clue.
This attitude makes it unlikely that what we actually have to teach will make its way successfully into the unfortunate other person’s head.
Good teaching starts with the idea that ignorance is not a defect of the individual we’re instructing: it’s the consequence of never having been properly taught. So the fault, rightly, really only ever belongs with the people who haven’t done enough to get the needed ideas into others’ heads: in other words, with you.
2. Good teachers don’t get angry
The more we need other people to know something, the less we may be able to secure the calm frame of mind which is indispensable if we are to have a chance of conveying it to them effectively. The possibility that they won’t quickly understand something that matters immensely to us can drive us into an agitated fury, which is the very worst state in which to conduct any lesson.
By the time we’ve started to insult our so-called pupil, to call them a blockhead or a fool, the lesson is quite plainly over. No one has ever learnt anything under conditions of humiliation.
Paradoxically, the best sort of teachers can bear the possibility that what they have to teach will not be understood. It is this slightly detached, slightly pessimistic approach that stands the best chance of generating the relaxed frame of mind essential to successful pedagogy.
3. Good teachers can admit they don’t know lots of things
It’s pretty humiliating to be in the learning position. Someone else has information you don’t. That can be so irritating, the person learning may shut their ears and hate the alleged superiority of the one in the teaching role.
That’s why another fundamental skill of the good teacher is to admit that they are, in most areas of life, pretty ignorant and stupid. This might seem to undermine their authority. Far from it; it creates an atmosphere of goodwill and modesty which puts the pupil at ease. They might not know this particular thing that’s being taught but they are, overall, not inferior to the teacher – and so they can dare to face up to their ignorance in a given area and submit to the discipline of having it nicely corrected.
4. Good teachers pick their moments
As bad teachers, we tend automatically to try to teach a lesson at the moment the problem arises, rather than selecting a time when it is most likely to be attended to properly.
Crises aren’t the best times for a lesson. We might have to wait a long time, three days after an argument for example, in order to pick just the opportune occasion to deal with its underlying dynamics. When our partner is stacking the dishwasher and humming a song might be wisest moment cheerfully and innocently to refer back to something that truly maddened us a little while back, but over which we were – at the time – sagely silent.
As we’re beginning to see, the more desperate we feel inside, the less likely we are to get through to others effectively. It is deeply unfortunate that we typically end up addressing the most delicate and complex teaching tasks just when we feel most irritated and distressed. We suffer from a panicked feeling that if we don’t jump on this right now, an issue is going to go on and on unchecked forever. Precisely not. We should be more confident that not jumping on an issue is what is in fact going to allow us to fix it properly a little way down the line.
5. Good Teachers are also Good Students
Good teachers know that everyone has a lot to learn and everyone has something important to impart to others. We should never get incensed if someone is trying to teach us something and snap back, ‘I wanted you to like me just as I am’. Only a perfect being would be committed to staying just as they are. For all the rest of us, good learning and teaching are the only ways we’ll ever be able to progress and that’s why we should welcome them as the gifts they truly are.