3 Simple Things Great Teachers Do

cartoon-fruit-apple-08Quick: take a moment to think about the single greatest teacher you ever had. Someone who inspired you, engaged you, and maybe even changed the trajectory of your life.

Perhaps it’s a coach, maybe a high-school teacher, maybe a relative — it doesn’t matter.

Now picture their face.

(Got it?)

When you think about that person, which of the following comes to mind:

  • A) A life lesson that person taught you
  • B) A goal that that person helped you achieve
  • C) The way that person made you feel

If you’re like most people, it’s no contest.

The answer is (C).

The lesson of this little exercise is simple: the greatest teachers aren’t great just because they deliver information. They’re great because they create lasting connections. They’re not about the words they say; they’re about the way they make you feel.

I’m not talking about mere social skills. I’m talking about the ability David Foster Wallace was talking about when he wrote this:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority…. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

Which leads us to a question: how do we find teachers like this, both for ourselves and our kids? How do we develop this quality in ourselves?

I thought it might be good to start a conversation by identifying a pattern I’ve seen in my research and the related science: three simple things that master teachers tend to do.

1) They are exceptionally good at small talk.  

Most master teachers don’t start sessions by teaching. They start by connecting. They want to chat, to engage, to figure out where you are, who you are, and what makes you tick.

A few years back, Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford organized an extensive video-based study on the habits of the most successful math tutors, and discovered a curious fact: the best tutors started each session by engaging in idle chat. They talked about the weather, or school, or family — anything but math.

This seems nonsensical, until you consider the role small talk plays in building trust. We do not naturally give our trust to people; small talk is the doorway to trust and learning.

2) They ask LOTS of questions.  

We instinctively think of great teachers as repositories of knowledge, and deliverers of brilliant speeches and lectures. This is hugely wrong. From Socrates to John Wooden, great teaching is about asking the right questions, not about providing the answers.

Lepper’s study showed that the most effective tutors spent 80 to 90 percent of their time asking questions. They weren’t dictating the truth, they were doing something far more important: creating a platform where the learner can struggle toward  the answers.

Geno Auriemma, coach of UConn’s nine-time national championship women’s basketball team, is particularly good at doing this. From a recent profile:

Here’s the phrase Auriemma utters most often to his players at practice. “Figure it out!” he bawls.

If he says it once, he says it a hundred times. He halts practice every time a kid looks at him quizzically, and asks, “What do I do here?”

“Figure it out,” he insists. “What do you think you should do here? Why do you need me to tell you all the time what to do here?”

3) They have a good sense of humor.

Yes, there are a few ultra-serious teachers out there who rarely crack a smile (I’m looking at you, ballet teachers), but the vast majority of master teachers use humor the same way you might employ a Swiss Army knife: as a multi-purpose social tool. Humor can defuse tension, create common ground, and build bonds. In other words, being funny isn’t just funny — it’s also smart.

Which brings us to the next question: what other skills should we add to this list? What fundamental skills did your best teachers possess, and how did they make you better? I’m eager to see what you think.

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