In the early years of school we are asked to participate in “Show and Tell.” Some people dread the experience, some people like it so much they spend the rest of their life looking for things they can share with others. When the Show and Tell bug has bitten the young person the student may become a teacher. There are many good teachers we meet in life; a few of us take it up as a profession.
Why are some people like this? The best of teachers simply enjoy the service: Knowing that one has contributed to the growth of others is an end in itself. I suspect that excellent teachers are also driven by the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself. They just want to know why things happen and are often willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get the best information available.
Teachers are enthusiastic about their topic and delight in sharing what they have learned. Sometimes it seems that they can go on forever about their specialty while denying the idea that they are an “expert.” Good teachers will tell you they are students, not teachers.
These two qualities are the primary and distinguishing characteristics of a teacher: Love of knowledge and a love of contributing to the development of others. At times the primary characteristics become contaminated by other drives and needs such as the need for status, authority, exhibitionism and any of many human needs that make us less than who we want to be. Excellent teachers learn to control these needs and to keep them out of the teaching arena as much as possible. Some teachers are better at this than others and they are better or worse teachers because of their abilities to control the extraneous (non-teaching) factors.
Contrary to many opinions, I do not believe that a teacher is necessarily the most skilled at their subject matter. For example, one of the things I enjoy in life is playing pocket billiards and I have noticed that while world champions write books about their sport, they often cannot pass on the “how” and the “why” of some particular esoteric point. They know how they train and they think this is the best way for everyone to train. The best billiards teacher I have found is not a world champion. His “hobby” is a billiards school in Chicago and champions go to him to refine their skills. This teacher is an extremely astute observer, he is articulate, highly knowledgeable and of course he is an excellent player ‑ but not a champion. You see he spends too much time doing what he loves most, helping others become champions.
One of the jokes we play on children is to tell them they must hold their mouth in the right way to drive a nail with a hammer. Champions often do this, albeit unintentionally. They know what works for them but they often cannot explain it. In addition, champions are usually involved in their own self‑advancement (as they should be) and do not often have the enthusiasm for helping others learn. That is a different drive.
As a university professor I am always on the look out for people who will make excellent teachers. I pull some students aside and ask them if they have thought about a teaching career. The people I talk with are excellent students of the material (they love it). They are also enthusiastic about the material and like to share (not show off) what they have learned.
One of the signs of a good teacher, and I have had students go on to become excellent teachers, is their initial response, “Oh, I am not good enough to teach. Who would want to listen to me?” There is a true humbleness and often these future teachers must be encouraged and given experiences that show that others want to listen to them. It may sound funny but most good teachers are amazed at first that others want to listen to what they have to say. The little (in their perception) knowledge they have acquired goes a long way because of the way they present it. The right attitudes and being one step beyond the students are the ingredients for a good teacher.
I like to think that I am a good teacher and I tell my students that a teacher is nothing more than the senior student in the room. Our crowning achievement is when our students go beyond us and push the edge of knowledge and ability one step further.
If you think about it, none of us like the authority figure with bombastic statements, a show off attitude, and the “I am better than you,” or “Why did you ask such a stupid question?” approach. What we like, and when we learn, is when the teacher appreciates us, finds ways to encourage us, and shows enthusiasm for the material that catches a fire in us that drives us to learn more, be more, and develop better skills.
Good teachers sometimes work in gas stations; law offices; hospitals; sports arenas; and some are in schools of various types. It is not where a teacher is located; it is their approach to the topic. They find out how the rest of us can become an expert and they love to see us go beyond their knowledge. When you find a good one you can go far. Good teachers take a candle flame of interest and build it into a bonfire of desire. With a little luck and motivated perseverance the student becomes a flaming star on the horizon that is the goal of a teacher.
Want to see how it’s done? Perhaps you are a much better teacher than you think. Select a person who wants to know about something that you have learned and something that you are enthusiastic about. Remember that you need to be only a step or two ahead of your “student.” Consider and write down the most important aspects of the topic to be taught. Maybe you need notes, but probably not as it is something you know and your student does not know. None‑the‑less, you will need a plan for presenting the material in a manner that can be easily grasped. Above all, don’t write it all down, just the notes that list the most important ideas that you “must” cover if the student is to know as much as you know.
Go to your student and show them what you have found. Your outline will fall apart because your first concern is to listen to their questions and present answers that are meaningful to the student. Your only concern is their concerns, what will help them learn more. While you are doing this you try to keep coming back to your outline, as these are the things that you know the student needs to know.
When your focus is on the student, their questions, their ideas, and their problems you are teaching. No matter what your student says, find something right in their statement or question. Use their comments as the beginning of what will interest and motivate the student to learn more. Use the student’s interest to take them further and as a vehicle that helps you return to your outline and the things they need to know.
One of the things that you will find is that your student will lead you to the areas that should have been included in your talk. The student’s questions will drive you to learn how to answer student questions the next time you teach.
After the teaching is done you will want to revise your outline and you will want to find better answers for those questions, comments, and problems. In this way the teacher is the student and the student helps us to become better teachers ‑‑ Try it, if you like it, you too may be a teacher in the making. A good teacher loves knowledge and loves learning how to communicate that knowledge in ways that motivate others to learn.
All of us are good at some things and not good at others and so teaching can be one of those skills that you may or may not have. You will never know until you try. It may or may not be a skill you will want to improve. For those of us who like to teach, the rewards cannot be compared to anything else and it becomes a profession, a way of life, and indeed part of the definition of what life is about ‑‑ the pursuit of truth in service to others.