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What makes a good teacher?

Last Updated 23 May 2023, 04:40 IST

Like most complex, nuanced and elusive phenomena, good teaching is hard to describe, let alone define. When I reminisce about my own academic journey, right from Kindergarten to earning a doctorate, a sea of faces and a host of distinctive voices float through my mind. Moreover, each teacher’s unique personality, including their eccentricities, some endearing, some unnerving, have etched themselves in my memory.

Having recently joined the teaching fraternity, I grapple with the question of what excellent teaching entails. As I peer through the recesses of my mind, about half a dozen teachers stand out as exceptional.

And, possibly the only feature that characterises all of them is that each one moved me in subtle yet profound ways. While some touched an emotional chord, others impressed upon me that knowledge has to be kindled by a passion for it to bear fruit. My mentors also modelled habits of mind that I still try to emulate.

That I encountered these teachers at different points in my academic life suggests that any teacher can impact individuals far into the future. As historian, Henry Adams has famously quipped, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

In my school days, the teachers who touched me acutely appealed more to my heart than my head. These benevolent individuals quelled the angsts of a twelve or fifteen-year-old, offering just the right emotional balms. One of these teachers inspired me again, later in my career as a developmental psychologist, when I was able to appreciate her keen observational skills and perceptiveness of human behaviour. The other teacher who chiselled her name into my heart reminds me of psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s words: “What a teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.”

In college and beyond, while I was deeply impressed by professors who seemed like walking repositories of knowledge, what struck me most was their unbridled passion for their fields. Besides harbouring insatiable wells of curiosity, these individuals exhibited intellectual humility, or a willingness to admit that they could be wrong. Rather than being defensive, they welcomed students to question, critique and rebut them.

Though outstanding teachers love their fields, they also seek to extend themselves beyond disciplinary boundaries. Cognizant of the fact that constructs and concepts that define a field are both limited and shifting, great teachers are, foremost, avid learners. Thus, we must never let the student, or perhaps even the child, within us die if we wish to teach.

My mentors also displayed a strong work ethic while prioritising student concerns. One of them also taught me that no work is too trivial or demeaning; if a student or research assistant was remiss in their duties, the professor would happily fill in or repair their mistakes.

Ultimately, as author and educator, Parker J. Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “we teach who we are.” Before aspiring to motivate students, teachers must first know themselves. Only when we feel comfortable and centred within ourselves can we forge meaningful connections with others. Examining our own “intellectual, emotional, and spiritual” landscapes is integral to our teaching

The intellectual dimension encompasses our understanding of cognition. How do we conceive of “teaching and learning”? How do we know when students have understood a concept? What does it even mean to understand something? The emotional facet deals with how the teacher and student feel as they engage with each other. Is there mutual rapport? Are they free to communicate their ideas and doubts? Finally, the spiritual angle examines whether the teacher and student feel connected to a larger, deeper purpose, whereby teaching morphs from a career into a calling.

I have been fortunate to be touched by some outstanding teachers. I only hope that some of their magic rubs off onto my students.

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know.)

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(Published 23 May 2023, 04:16 IST)

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