My Best Teachers

If you treat an individual…as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

One of the greatest privileges in life is that of teaching, coaching, mentoring or leading others in any setting or of any age. To do so requires an unusual combination of skills, chief among them are the ability to radiate a certain quality of knowledge or even wisdom and the willingness to be at rest in yourself while occasionally making others feel uncomfortable by your radiant presence.

Looking back, my best teachers were those who made me feel the most uncomfortable, challenged and capable of reaching that which was beyond my reach at the time. Their very presence compelled my finest expression – in thought, word and action – no matter how I was feeling or they were feeling at the time. They were empathetic and understanding without being sympathetic and subject to my limitations, both real and perceived.

Another common denominator to this rare and distinguished group was (and is!) the ability to help me navigate from where I was to where they knew I could be. Just writing this makes me realize that they believed in me more than I believed in myself at certain critical points. This is the very essence of an effective teacher, mentor and leader.

You cannot give what you don’t have and the wonderful thing about teaching, mentoring and leading is that you find yourself face-to-face with yourself as you are presently configured. You realize very quickly what you have and can therefore deliver and what you don’t and must therefore develop in yourself if you are to continue to provide guidance in that area. Luckily those whom you are guiding are typically consumed with their own process to the point that they do not see you addressing your own deficiencies, especially if you do not draw unnecessary attention to your process.

A great teacher will humbly admit that he is continually learning from his students and from the process of teaching and sharing, without losing his authority. A great teacher is, in this sense, a great student first and a great teacher second. Put otherwise, the way a teacher relates to the learning process will tend to condition the way his students relate to the learning process.

It’s a beautiful process when you think about it. It’s not so much the circle of life, where facts and information are recycled from generation to generation, but the spiral of life, where the ongoing revelation of wisdom is encouraged. This is the catalyst that transforms the human experience from history repeating itself to moving from glory unto glory.


Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

I realized during a riding lesson today that the old adage “practice makes perfect” isn’t always true. If you practice incorrectly, for example, you can spend a lifetime attempting to perfect something that is unattainable based on a flawed approach. Horseback riding is fraught with such possibilities, for it is one of those activities that requires the harmonization of two living, sentient creatures – man and horse – as opposed to other sports like tennis that involve man and an inanimate object that behaves the same way every time you pick it up.

Enter the notion of “perfect practice.”

What is perfect practice? For starters, perfect practice demands a perspective on the goal at hand. In the case of horseback riding, an old master is always several steps ahead of his charge and is mindful of the little adjustments that must be made to maintain efficient progress toward the goal. A new rider like myself, however, finds himself regularly in a catch-22 where he is desirous of movement toward a goal while lacking the tools – the sensitivity, self-control and technique – to move swiftly from where he is to where he would like to be.

Enter the godsends: trainers, teachers, coaches, guides and mentors.

Apprenticeship is my favorite form of learning. If the student is sufficiently humble and docile, the presence of a mentor can greatly reduce the learning curve, sparing both man and horse from needless trial and error. Such an arrangement is as near perfect as any. There will still be trial and error as the student develops the “feel” for that which he must master to move on, but the watchful and knowing eyes of a well-trained teacher can shave years off of a learning process.

Perfect practice also requires that you get “out of yourself.”

Learning is more than a conscious process. Have you ever caught yourself focusing too much on the learning opportunity at hand? The more supple you are mentally speaking, the more quickly you learn. If you become tense, overly focused on the minutiae of some task to the exclusion of fluidity in the bigger picture, you rick restricting or even blocking the currents of inspiration and realization that comes as your subconscious mind becomes ordered in relation to a task and thereby supportive of your conscious efforts. Frustrations bloom in the soil of tension.

Beating yourself up during practice never helps.

If you endeavor to learn something new, give thought to the nature of your practice. Don’t just plod through it mindlessly and if you must practice on your own, have a plan! And if matters don’t go according to plan, as is often the case, don’t be afraid to exercise your intuition and determine how to proceed based on the unanticipated factors.

Perfect practice can make perfect if you release your inhibitions and limitations when they come to light. Stay relaxed, stay focused and forget about yourself and the world will be your oyster!

Improvement and Innovation

I came across an interesting article about Finland’s educational system that I feel compelled to share with you today. Forty years ago Finland was facing a double crisis. It’s economy and educational system were performing poorly and the leadership at the time took a bold series of steps to improve the prospects for the future. They bet on the simple fact that better teachers would create better students which in turn become more productive citizens.

So what happened?

“So what has happened since is that teaching has become the most highly esteemed profession. Not the highest paid, but the most highly esteemed. Only one out of every 10 people who apply to become teachers will ultimately make it to the classroom. The consequence has been that Finland’s performance on international assessments, called PISA, have consistently outranked every other western country, and really there are only a handful of eastern countries that are educating with the same results.”

As Jack Black said in the movie School of Rock when asked a question by fellow teachers at the school in which he was impersonating a substitute teacher, “I believe that teachers are our future. Teach them well…” Whitney couldn’t have said it better, but who’s to judge? Jokes aside, teachers are one of our country’s greatest assets. The profession of teaching ought to be much more highly esteemed, but it won’t happen magically and it won’t happen overnight.

The Finns realized that there had to be collaboration between business leaders, policy makers and educators. I imagine that is easier said than done! Improvement and innovation don’t come from a disjointed approach in any situation, so why would we expect, in our country, to be able to continue in the same direction we’ve marched over the last few decades and somehow arrive at a new and improved destination?

I’ve only just begun to look into this subject and I would love to hear your thoughts whether you’ve had personal experience in the field of teaching or not. More testing is obviously not the answer. More money is clearly not the magic bullet. Neither is guaranteed employment in my estimation. The first step, as with all things, is that we come to an agreement about the importance of teachers in our society.

Everything else can emerge from that fundamental recognition. If we fail to start there, no amount of reform will be sufficient to halt the backward slide our system in the United States has been on for many years now. We cannot “agree to disagree” on this point.

What say you?

The Basis of Learning

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

Some education experts claim that there are as many as seven types of learners, most agree that there are three primary types:

  1. audio learners
  2. visual learners
  3. kinesthetic learners

Audio or “listening” learners are often mistakenly accused as having some form of attention deficit. You probably remember (if it’s not you) the type. They may have sat through an entire semester with their head down, apparently sleeping, yet they somehow magically earned good marks when it came to test time. When asked if they understand, they’ll often reply something to the effect: “I hear you.”

Visual learners, on the other hand, usually have to “see it to believe it” and the point of understanding is often marked with the phrase “I see what you’re saying.” They also tend to be the notetakers who try to record every word and they learn primarily through the written word.

Kinesthetic learners, on the other hand, learn better by doing. They prefer to take a hands-on approach and actively explore the world around them. They may be accused of being fidgets, as they are prone to become distracted by the need for physical activity and exploration.

No matter what your learning style, it is clear to me that if involvement is lacking, you are not likely to learn much of anything. Involvement is a two way street. Teachers, instructors, mentors, parents and bosses must find ways to involve those they’re teaching in the learning process.

A teacher-friend told me about an eight year old child who interrupted a monotone and long-winded lesson from another teacher with a dangerously disrespectful “blah, blah, blah…” When asked by his teacher why he said that, he said “Well, if you’re not excited about what you are teaching, why should I be interested in it?” To involve others in a learning process, you are wise to be involved and passionate about what you’re teaching.

Many students lose interest in the subject at hand or school in general due to an instructor who has failed to convey his or her passion about the topic. That said, the uncommon student can thrive in any learning situation. If you are passionate about learning, you will find a way to learn. They don’t excuse themselves based on the fact that they were dealt a bad hand, a bad schedule, the worst teachers or any other person, place or thing typically targeted by a wagging and accusatory finger.

A good teacher will find a way to use his passion to ignite the tinder of understanding in his students. Doing so is not always easy, especially when you are presenting to a number of people who each have slightly different learning styles.

To be a good speaker and teacher, you must be first and foremost a good listener. You must hear, see and feel where your students are to be able to guide them to where you know they can be. You may pique the interest of your visual learners with a good graphic, but a good story might be more effective at reaching the audio learners in the room. Props are often useful, especially when they demonstrate the principle being discussed to your more kinesthetically-inclined students or employees.

The art of teaching is as much an art as it is science. It requires skillful application of the various principles involved, and rarely does the same approach work for two different groups. I cringe when I hear about videos replacing professors in undergraduate university courses, for exactly this reason.

The next time you are in a learning or teaching position, find a way to make what would otherwise be an average experience, exceptional. Touch the hearts of your students or if you’re in the other shoes, open your heart to the enthusiasm of your instructor. Enjoy!