The defining characteristic of all my best teachers, from elementary school onward, can be summed up in one word: humility.
I used to harbor the misconception that humility meant thinking less of yourself, but the ideal is much more honest. It is thinking of yourself exactly as you are — no more and no less — and understanding and complying with the purpose for which you were created. The teacher, then, is the quintessential instrument: Just as a musical instrument must submit to its proper use to transmit beautiful sound, a teacher requires the same humility to successfully transmit information or skills to his students.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all humble people are cut out for teaching, or that no teacher is ever proud. But I have noticed five key qualities in the most effective teachers, all of which relate to humility:
1. They are open-minded.
I don’t mean the wishy-washy types sporting “COEXIST” bumper stickers (which really just mean, “The only truth is that there is no objective truth”). I’m talking about the open-mindedness that says, “I love Truth more than I love my own knowledge, and so I’m willing to adjust what I claim to know based on what I discover.” A teacher who doesn’t have this quality will fail fast. If he doesn’t love Truth, how will he inspire that love in a student?
2. They trust their intuitions.
Academia is full of arbitrary norms and expectations — you must read such-and-such to be considered well-read; you must have a master’s degree before you have anything useful to say; etc. The teacher who operates by this “common wisdom” makes himself every student’s worst nightmare: repetitive and boring. Don’t rely too heavily on the “giants” of your field; they were ordinary people once, too, and in trusting what they had to say, they inspired others.
Say what you know, not just what a textbook tells you to say.
3. They assume — and expect — the best from their students.
I’ve lost respect for some teachers because I realized they had no respect for me — whether that meant expecting laziness or bad behavior, or dismissing students’ opinions out of hand. When teachers don’t expect more, students have little impulse to give more. But believing the best of one’s students may be just the thing that spurs them on to be the best.
One of my favorite teachers had my seventh grade class memorize the logical fallacies and participate in a formal debate tournament. That sort of thing is usually considered beyond a middle school student’s grasp, but my class responded to the challenge with enthusiasm. It’s better to assume the best and be disappointed than to set the bar low for everyone. If you don’t challenge and have confidence in your students, how will you ever discover or nurture the genius?
4. They balance their means.
A teacher who is too organized may create a stifling environment. A teacher who is too scatter-brained may create an unproductive environment. An effective teacher has the right balance of organization, spontaneity, and flexibility. If any of these qualities falters, the whole thing may go out of sync and the message won’t be delivered.
5. They love what they teach.
This is essential. If a teacher doesn’t love what he’s teaching, how in the world could he expect a bunch of kids outside of that field to care? He doesn’t have to adore kids, or PTA meetings, or college philosophy departments, but he does have to love what he teaches. If not, why teach at all?
C. S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce:
Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower — become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.
The teacher is a type of artist. He must craft his knowledge and skills in such a way that they can be transmitted and understood. A good teacher is inspiring and enlightening — like a good artist. And like an artist, a successful teacher must never fall into to the terrible pit that Lewis describes. We teach what we teach — whether biology or basketball — because it lifts our eyes to Heaven, and we want to share that view with others. But we must always be aware that it is Heaven that we love, and not our communication of it.
Most importantly, we must always be ready for that most humbling of calls: the call to quit. It may be that, one day, we’ll have nothing left to say, and we must be okay with that. Thomas Aquinas, after having a vision of Heaven, refused to write anything else and dismissed his earlier work as worthless. He knew that our expressions of what we love are mere reflections of the root of our True Love.