Consider this a follow-up to my recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The 4 Properties of Powerful Teachers,” which has been widely referenced, including in an October article for the Journal of Dental Education by Dr. Nadeem Karimbux.
One of my favorite parts of that column actually ended up on the cutting room floor—but purely for space reasons. I only get so many words, and I confess I exceeded that limit by several hundred. Rather than omit other parts she thought were more important–and I don’t necessarily disagree–my editor chose to summarize a long passage with a few sentences. But I believe the concepts I wrote about are definitely worth considering, so I’m happy to have this opportunity to revisit them here.
The passage in question appeared early in the column, under the subheading “Personality.” Recognizing that everyone is different, and that personality traits aren’t necessarily something we can fully control, I was nevertheless attempting to identify key traits that most of my best teachers had in common, from kindergarten through grad school. Note that when I say “my best teachers,” I’m not just talking about the ones I liked the best, although that is generally true, as well. But what I’m really talking about are the teachers who made the greatest impact on me, who I most remember to this day–even though, in some cases, it’s been more than 40 years since I sat in their classroom–and whom I have most tried to emulate in my own teaching.
Perhaps you will recognize some of these traits as being present in your own favorite teachers:
They tend to be good-natured and approachable, as opposed to sour or foreboding. Grouchy, short-tempered, misanthropic curmudgeons can sometimes make effective teachers, too, if for no other reason than that they prepare us for grouchy, short-tempered, misanthropic bosses. I had some of those teachers myself, especially in grad school, and learning to cope with them was a valuable learning experience I would not wish to deny anyone. But most of my very best teachers were pretty easy to get along with–at least as long as I paid attention in class and did my work.
They’re professional without being aloof. Most teachers tend to keep students at arm’s length, the obvious message being, “I’m your teacher, not your friend.” And that isn’t a bad thing. Clearly, professionalism requires a certain amount of boundary-setting, which can be difficult–especially when dealing with older students, where the age gap is often not all that wide and they might actually be your friends under different circumstances. My best teachers always seemed to somehow walk the very fine line between being an authority figure and someone I felt I could talk to–and generally speaking, they appeared to do it effortlessly. I didn’t even understand what they were doing until years later, when I had to do it myself.
They have a good sense of humor (even if they’re not stand-up comedians), perhaps because they don’t take themselves or their subject matter too seriously. Few things are more off-putting to students than teachers who obviously think they’re much smarter than anyone else in the room, perhaps in any room–unless it’s teachers who think their subject is the most important subject of all and expect students to feel the same way and devote their time accordingly, other classes be darned. Such teachers rarely have a sense of humor when it comes to themselves, much less their subject matter. But my best teachers not only understood that their class was just one of several we were taking, but almost all of them had a great, self-deprecating wit, which they didn’t hesitate to turn against themselves and even their topics.
They seem to enjoy what they do and enjoy being around students. I wrote in my Chronicle column about teachers who don’t really like students–and I’ve been around a lot of them over the years. They’re the ones who are constantly complaining about how rude or unprepared their students are, not to mention whining about their workload. I’ve often wondered: Why are those people even in this profession? What did they expect? The people I remember as my best teachers were the ones who clearly loved teaching and got a kick out of associating with students every day. After all, no one wants to feel like a nuisance, which is exactly how some teachers make their students feel. The best teachers don’t.
They’re demanding without being unkind. Some teachers I know take great pride in being disliked by students, wearing their unpopularity like a badge of honor. They naturally assume it’s because they’re so “demanding” and “rigorous”; since all those lazy students dislike rigor, they naturally transfer that dislike to the people who demand it of them. In my experience, however, most students want to be challenged; they don’t mind if a lot is expected of them. They just don’t want their teachers to be jerks or insufferable know-it-alls. I believe you can be as demanding as you want, within reason, without being mean-spirited. That’s how my best teachers were.
They seem comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps one reason students tend to like these teachers is that they like themselves, without being in love with the sound of their own voice.This is related to what I said about the best teachers not taking themselves too seriously, but it goes beyond that. In my opinion, the root cause of bad teaching is a fundamental lack of self-confidence, leading teachers to over-compensate by being unreasonably demanding, aloof, and condescending to students. Paradoxically, the teachers who seem most arrogant and narcissistic are often trying to cover up what they perceive as profound deficiencies in their own personalities and abilities. The best teachers are confident without being arrogant, authoritative without being condescending.
They are tremendously creative, always willing to entertain new ideas or try new things—sometimes even on the fly. “Innovation” is a popular buzzword these days, to the point where simply being “innovative” has become desirable for its own sake, regardless of whether the resulting “innovations” actually accomplish anything worthwhile. The term is usually applied to technology, as if that were the only acceptable or significant type of innovation. My best teachers, though, were truly innovative, coming up with creative ways–as I said, sometimes spur of the moment–to help us students understand, internalize, and remember what they were trying to teach us. Sometimes those ideas involved what we commonly refer to as “technology”–meaning computers–but often they were very low-tech. What made those teachers innovative was not their tools but their minds.
They make teaching look easy (even though we all know it isn’t). Ultimately, great teachers are like great athletes or dancers or musicians. We may know, cognitively, that what they do isn’t easy, but they consistently do it with so little apparent effort that we’re often lulled into thinking it’s no big deal–until we try it ourselves. Then we learn quickly just how difficult it is to play a sport or an instrument–or teach–at a very high level. In my case, even though I liked most of the teachers on my best-ever list, and actually loved some of them, I didn’t really come to appreciate them and what they did until I became a teacher myself. Now I strive to emulate them and all too often fall short.
In closing, I’d like to acknowledge once again that the personality traits listed above are just that–personality traits–meaning we as individuals don’t necessarily control whether or not we have them, or to what degree. No doubt, there’s some truth to the idea that certain people are just born teachers, because they happen to be blessed with these traits in abundance.
At the same time, I do believe that, even if we’re not necessarily born with all these traits, we can work to develop them and to some degree succeed. We may never be as funny or approachable or creative as our favorite teachers, or as we’d like to be. But simply by recognizing those as desirable traits that we wish to acquire, by acknowledging that we don’t possess them to the degree we would like, and by committing ourselves to working on those areas, we can become more approachable, more creative–yes, even funnier–than we were before or would be otherwise.
To the extent that we undertake that journey of self-discovery and self-improvement, we become better teachers every day–whether we’re “born teachers” or not.
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