What qualities mark a teacher exceptional, one who transforms the lives of students and whose influence students may recognize immediately or years later?
A great teacher knows that students are unable to understand everything he teaches. His lectures contain content that are beyond the grasp of even the smartest kids in the class. But he knows that such content can fire the imagination.
Such a teacher has not only passion for his subject, he also has the skills to move fluently between disciplines, to give examples from literature when teaching math, say, or poetry when teaching physics. For him, cross-pollination of ideas is critical to making his content come alive. He can make connections. The possibility of serendipity propels him.
This teacher knows that her teaching is more about students than about herself, but while she is not ‘the sage on the stage,’ neither is she a mere ‘guide by the side.’ Whatever it takes to stretch the minds of her students, she does. If it means going against the conventional order of content, so be it. If it means touching lightly on a tangential topic, with fuller explanations to come later or maybe never, that’s the way it is. The transformational teacher is non-linear rather than linear.
A memorable teacher never relies on her reputation, however exalted it may be, for she knows that she has to earn her wings every time she enters a classroom. Each class is a fresh start, even if she has been teaching that class for decades. She has abiding respect for her students, and so she prepares her lectures carefully, always seeking new angles to old materials.
The great teacher takes to heart what the English historian Edward Gibbon said: "The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” In other words, after listening to such a teacher, a student feels as if the content is the most natural and logical thing in the world and that he knew it all along. It is interesting to note that the legendary physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) quoted Gibbon in his preface to “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.”
This teacher – among the rarest of breeds - can be serious without being solemn. There is an element of playfulness in his teaching and in the way he uses humor to leaven formulas and formalism and, most importantly, to put his students at ease so they can use the full power of their minds. Under his guidance, students find the inner resources to ask deep questions and experiment on their own.
“Education is not the filling of a pail,” said the poet William Butler Yeats, “but the lighting of a fire.” Students lucky enough to come in contact with a great teacher know exactly what Yeats meant. They develop new ways of seeing and thinking. They are open to surprises. They discover a more wondrous world beyond their smart gadgets. After graduation, they are more likely to solve problems that will make a difference in people’s lives than becoming rich through a corporate job or by managing other people’s money.
The great teacher rejects teaching fads seasonally served up by ‘experts’ who have never stepped into a class. Teaching to the test or teaching to the core or teaching to this or to that are meaningless phrases for her. She can ignore the fads and the buzzwords because she studies her students meticulously and intuitively, most of them anyway, and so knows how to put the spark in their minds, how to kindle their creativity and sense of wonder. Even with the inroads technology has made into education and all the ‘big data’ analysis of ‘effective teaching methodologies,’ she knows that teaching will remain an art and not a science.
An extraordinary teacher is also a radical, a revolutionary. He shakes things up. He challenges students to question accepted beliefs. He encourages them to cross intellectual boundaries. He disturbs their universe. He mixes relevance with danger. He is tough without being trying, supportive without being sentimental. His expectations are high, just as his tolerance for shoddy work and knuckleheads low. His greatest pleasure is in seeing students embark on intellectual journeys on their own. His focus is not exactly on knowledge - that can bud later - but on enduring curiosity. Because passivity is the killer of intellectual inquiry, he peppers his students with questions and then demands that they pepper him with questions. He helps them reinvent themselves as they discover hidden treasures of their minds. He shows the sky to students trapped in the bottom of a well.
A great teacher removes the fear of failure from his students. He inspires them to try things out as a beginner because that is the key to unlocking creativity. Whatever emotions a student may experience in his class, boredom is not one of them. Disturbed, agitated, uncertain, falling off the cliff maybe, but dull? Never!
Everyone should know a transformational teacher, someone who can light a fire and reveal a universe. It doesn’t happen, of course, but for those lucky students for whom it does, they should spread the word so that other well-meaning teachers can learn from them and emulate them.
No amount of ‘educational reform to prepare our students for the 21st century’ sloganeering will make a dent in our broken educational system. For the truly dedicated, teaching is a calling and it is these few who can show us the way.