I didn’t become a school teacher for a couple reasons: I lose my voice quickly when I talk a lot, and I’m drained by interacting with people all day. I discovered these weaknesses as I did peer tutoring throughout elementary, middle, and high school in reading, math, and music. Looking back, it’s remarkable that my school trusted me, a sixth grader, to help third graders with their education. But I was also learning how rewarding it was to share my knowledge with others, with empathy and patience.
I learned that just because you excel at a subject doesn’t mean you can teach it. Teaching is a communication challenge in many ways- I’ve had to yell over the sound of rambunctious children banging on percussion instruments and convince cynical teenagers why they should care about a book. I take the success and failures of other people personally, even though I don’t have total control over how they perform on tests or day-to-day tasks.
Perfectionism was both an asset and obstacle for me. I would pore over each childish scrawl, wondering whether to nitpick spelling errors or critique the whole essay structure. I’d agonize over whether I should point out the small mistake in the student’s attempt at a musical passage or focus on phrasing. My self-doubt ballooned into larger crises: is my curriculum design actually helping students? How do I teach an entire class when skill levels vary wildly? How do I help students develop abstract skills like teamwork and creativity?
I understand that I’m not the only one with such questions. Governments often grapple with the efficacy of standardized tests, or what version of the truth to pass down through history textbooks. I don’t envy the people tasked with creating a blanket standard to evaluate each individual student.
To me, the most important question to answer is “what makes a good teacher?” I know the desirable qualities in abstract: firm but kind, accessible, dependable, and patient. But the most accurate picture about a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses comes from people who experienced their teaching. My mom found out which elementary school teachers were the best for me and my brother by talking to parents of older students. In high school, I listened for these stories and rumors myself.
This skill of researching good teachers became crucial in college, when I had to choose professors whom I could trust to shape my worldview and career path. Classmates advised me: “D. focuses on her research rather than her students. A good academic isn’t necessarily a good teacher.” “J. is an amazing lecturer who cares about undergraduates.”
After graduation, I quickly found that a major challenge of adult life is searching for teachers of a non-academic kind. I need mentors as I carve out paths in my career, hobbies, and personal life. Choosing the people to take advice from and lean on for support can dramatically change my life.
As I think about what makes a good teacher, I remember school teachers who left deep imprints on my mind. When I told my first grade teacher my dream was to “read all day,” she answered, “Me too.” I still remember this because it was my first realization that white-haired adults could still be children at heart. The secret to succeeding as a teacher or mentor is to impart even one kernel of wisdom that the student carries on for the rest of their lives.
My parents, my first teachers in life, often quote the revered Chinese teacher Confucius at me. One proverb I hear often is: “If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.” We are always learning from the people around us about ourselves and our place in the world. That’s a truth I’ve learned from all my teachers.
This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write an article for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.