Monday, February 21, 2011

What Makes a "Good" Teacher?

I've been appreciating good teachers lately.

I've been thinking of the qualities the teachers I value as "good" have in in common. When I was still in school, I thought good teachers had to have an air of confidence and a developed ability to read the room. I thought they had to be brilliant--many steps ahead of the students they taught. When I started teaching composition, I thought this, and I also thought a sense of humor would endear the students to me and thus, learn the material better.

Now that I've taught for a few years and been a student for over 25, I know of no universal checklist of qualities that one can aspire to. We never get the chance to sigh satisfactorily once they've been attained. I know plenty of people who are intelligent, funny, and who initially appear confident. But the teachers that reach me again and again seem to have a well-defined sense of who they are.

There's a fairly new yoga teacher in town who helped me see this. I remember the first time she walked into the room. She looked young, geeky, and did not have a strong, commanding voice. She didn't force herself to be cheerful or firm. She continued to seem young and geeky and didn't pretend to have a commanding voice. But damn if she didn't get the best class out of us. And I've seen her do that again and again.

This teacher has a particularly gentle way of encouraging us to try. Rather than make it seem like we're rockstars if we do the pose and not trying hard enough if we sit it out, it seems she simply points out that it's possible to do the work. Last week, she singled me out in Standing Bow pose. Normally, I'm falling all over the place in that posture, and teachers who know me don't bother to correct me or offer encouragement. (I don't mean this in a "those teachers suck!" kind of way. Let me make my point.) It takes a real act of bravery to offer them encouragement in just the place they need it.

I think it was the last side of Standing Bow when I realized she was talking to me. "Yep, you've got it, E," she said. "Just keep kicking." I don't remember what else she said, but it was so nice to really feel her reach out to me in just the posture I feel the weakest in. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I finished the pose pretty strongly.

As a teacher, I too know that it's hard to take a leap of faith like that for a student. I see now that it's because that yoga teacher was not a drill sergeant, because she was being her normal, geeky, joking-about-a-book-I-read-last-week self, I knew it would be OK if I fell out. That was the exact thing I needed to go forward--I needed someone to reassure me it would be OK if I "failed." It was like the criteria for being a good student had dissolved, too.

Like all those self-help messages that emphasize that we should be who we are, we need to give ourselves permission to be ourselves when we teach, when we work, when we parent, etc, even if we are nervous, silly, or irritated. There's no need to force yourself to act a certain way--you're already OK as you are. This is the message we need to hear again and again. Maybe that's why it feels so wonderful to get a teacher who sees this!


Bikramyogajourney said...

I think that quality is what makes a good friend too. When you feel accepted for who you are, and encouraged to be yourself.

thedancingj said...

Right on. I really like your point here: to teach well, you have to be genuinely YOURSELF. If you just try to imitate someone else - even someone else who is really good, funny, clever, etc - it doesn't come out right. You just have to be the best version of yourself, even if you are kind of weird. ;-) And then the same goes for our students - we just have to coax them into being the best versions of themselves, even if they are kind of wobbly sometimes...

feral chick said...

"It takes a real act of bravery to offer them encouragement in just the place they need it." Beautiful.

Yolk E said...

Thanks, y'all. I agree, Bikramjourney--that whole "be who you really are" stuff works in ALL situations.

Sometimes imitation will get you through the day, but ultimately, you gotta let that go and just be yourself, corny as that sounds :-)

Vogjo said...

I work as a substitute teacher occasionally, and get to experience teachers students. It is strange, but the best teachers have the best classes even when not present. As hard as I tried to determine what is was that made them good, I couldn't find a common attribute. Finally realized that as you said: "you have to be genuinely YOURSELF." The best teachers use whatever natural skill they have that works with who they really have, to take control, and to convince their students that what they're saying is important.

Yolk E said...

Thanks for the undercover perspective, Vogjo. I'm curious to check out your blog!