The kind of teaching that makes a (good) difference

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Image by Ana Maria Castaneda Cano Image by Ana Maria Castaneda Cano
A lot of words have been written, by very smart, experienced and well-read people, about what makes good teaching. There’s unquestionably enormous value in discussions of teaching methods, styles and techniques, and I’m always glad to be informed by clever people who often know a lot more than I do about such matters.

But none of that is what this brief article is about.

In my position as the Academic Director of Hull’s School in Switzerland, I am persuaded that very high on my list of priorities is to create the conditions that best enable and promote the kind of teaching that makes a (good) difference. My experience tells me that there are a number of keys to making this happen. I will focus here on just one such key – the key I take to be the most important one.

When hiring teachers, pay as much attention to certain personal qualities, as described below, as to the teacher’s formal professional qualifications.

Over the years, I have seen all manner of lessons. In particular, some reflect deep knowledge and mastery of the latest pedagogical wisdom, and some do not. I’m all for pedagogical wisdom, but I have seen extraordinarily effective, dynamic lessons that break many pedagogical rules and I have also seen turgid lessons that were technically perfect. Forced to choose, I’ll take the teacher who shows me the dynamic, rule-breaking lessons.

A dynamic, passionate teacher can learn technique; passion is harder to teach.

And that’s why I put great store in the impression made in personal interviews, the observed lessons I insist that all teacher candidates do (observed by the department head and by me), and personal references from at least 3 recent employers.

I am not saying that professional qualifications are irrelevant. A teacher should have solid subject knowledge and years of relevant, successful experience before being “set loose” to teach classes on their own. Formal teacher training is also important.

But given that such minimal standards are met, I’m willing to take a candidate who is less experienced or has less training over a candidate who has more of both – if the “less-qualified” candidate is better able to light the fire of interest in her students.

There’s a little parable I like to tell in this regard, loosely adapted from a legendary account.

There was once a fabled racing stallion named Bayard, reputed to have all the qualities one might desire in such a beast. Legs and hooves, body type, etc; all were said to be there in one sublime package. Hearing of this stallion, a ruler with a passion for horse racing sent an emissary to buy the steed, at any price.

The emissary returned empty-handed.

“Why did you not buy the fabled Bayard?”, asked the ruler. “Did he not have all the wonderful features which so many have attributed to him?”

“Indeed, your Highness”, replied the emissary, “the fabled Bayard has all the qualities one might wish for in a racing stallion, and just one single fault. The fabled Bayard is dead.”

This is a description which I find sadly apt for many technically perfect lessons I have seen. All the qualities one might wish for in an excellent lesson, sadly marred by that one flaw: lifelessness. And if you can’t get your students to listen to you and care about what you’re saying, technique will not save your lesson.

For me, it all boils down to this: the student has to feel that the teacher cares deeply about her subject, and also cares deeply about whether each student learns it.  Both types of caring will be manifest in everything the teacher does in the classroom: the passion and deep knowledge the teacher displays when presenting the material and answering questions, the effort put into presenting all this in a clear and effective way, the way the teacher listens to the students’ questions and tries her best to give helpful answers, the offers of extra help, and also one more thing that crucially should not be neglected: the obvious joy in the teacher’s face when the students show they have understood (and even perhaps enjoyed!) the material.

For me, that’s what teaching to make a (good) difference is all about.

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