3 Lessons For Every Teacher To Be A Better One
In August this year, I was invited to do a 3-hour workshop with the faculty of Ann Mary School, a peace loving institution set in Dehradun valley, the place I call home. I was thrilled. On the day of the workshop, 120 teachers greeted me with warm smiles, confused eyes and discreet voices; a reaction I am used to. My age, coupled with my schoolboy looks, is usually the eyebrow raiser and conversation (rather gossip) starter anywhere I go.
I started the session with an introduction exercise where every teacher had to tell me their name and the one thing, which according to them is the most important thing to know about them. It is on the third row, second seat of that classroom where I first met Mrs. Chandralekha Singh, an English teacher at the school. She had a pensive look, silver hair, and a voice that could best be used to read bedtime stories to insomniacs.
After telling me her name she said, “I love to be in a classroom with my students. That is the most important thing one needs to know about me.” Noted.
That was on a Monday evening.
Mrs. Singh passed away the very next day in her classroom, due to a heart attack. I got the news on Wednesday, when I returned to the school to take a workshop with class 11th students.
I returned home that day with Mrs. Singh’s last words to me, ringing in my head. And it got me thinking about my own teaching career, so far. I started teaching when I was 17. I’ve travelled all over the country teaching, and have seen my share of great, good and okay days as a teacher. I have taught more than 40,000 people from ages five to 96, from almost all walks of life.
The more I reflected at my teaching career, the more I realized that there are three simple things that’ve made me (fairly) successful at my job as a teacher and educator. As a tribute to Mrs. Singh, I’m sharing those three qualities with you, which I believe teachers must have to help their students achieve their highest potential.
1. Be vulnerable
Opening up to your students about your mistakes, failures and flaws helps them see you as someone real and human, and not as a mere authority figure. When you are honest to them about your failures (and successes), they can relate better with you because they see a lot of themselves in you. They begin to believe that they too can achieve and are worthy of achievements despite their flaws and failures.
When a teacher talks about the one time he/she scored less or bunked school to watch a movie or didn’t turn their homework in on time, the child recognises that as something familiar, begins to open up to the teacher, and is easier to teach.
Vulnerability is a great tool to help your students feel comfortable in your presence. If you don’t let them step into your story, you can’t expect them to let you step into theirs. And if they don’t let you step into their stories, there are fewer ways for you to help them or make an impact in their lives. Not something you want, right?
2. Be enthusiastic; there is no substitute for that
I skip the usual “good morning” anthem, which students (in absolutely every school) start to sing when a teacher enters the class. Instead, I shout a big “Hi”. It feels more me and more them. A dull and boring teacher never caught anyone’s attention.
One of my favorite teachers in school acknowledged me with a big smile and a compliment every time she saw me. I’ve never forgotten how that made me feel. The great American author, Toni Morrison, put it well when she asked, “Does your face light up when you see your children? Because that is what they are looking for.”
Anyone can help finish the syllabus, take a test and correct the answer sheets but your position as a teacher is significant because, whether you know it or not, you become a role model for your students. An enthusiastic teacher raises students who bubble with excitement and optimism and are open to experiencing the unknown with an infectious positive energy.
If I could have it my way, I would want every teacher in the world to shout ‘Eureka’ the first time his/her students solve an algebra equation all by themselves or ask a great question. Be an enthusiastic teacher; your kids will remember you far longer than you can imagine.
3. Help them make a life more than a living
“No friendship classes. No classes on how to navigate a bureaucracy, build an organization, raise money, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what was important to me. Not knowing how to do these things is what messes people up in life, not whether they know algebra or can analyze literature.”- William Upski Wimsatt
Teaching is never really about giving students some marks; it is always about providing them moments that will help them discover their own magic. Learning how to handle heartbreak, the failure of a billion dollar dream and the overwhelming power of success, and learning how to simply enjoy one’s solitude are subjects as important as studying about World War II and cross-pollination.
Most students observe their teachers keenly to find answers to the pestering questions of a budding mind. It is only when a teacher actively pursues the need to help his/her students bloom into good human beings, that his/her purpose as a mentor is served.
No student in the world will bump into his teacher, years later on a street and say, “Thank you for helping me score a perfect 100 in the English paper back in class 10th.” Instead, they might thank you for your kindness, or the grace with which you maintained the discipline of the class or the exquisite stories you told them that opened up their minds.
Although, I met Mrs. Singh only once, it was enough to know that she’d been a blessing to her students. She had qualities beyond the three I’ve written here about. She created so much impact in her 23 years of teaching that I am inspired to keep on keeping on.
To all the teachers: be the best versions of yourself for your students, because I’ve always believed, “When you learn, you become a star. But when you teach, you become a constellation.”