Those Who Can- Teach

Some of the best teachers I’ve had got good results from me by seeming to expect them.

If I gave a subpar performance, they seemed confused. I worked harder if only to avoid that look on their face. I felt like they’d mistaken me for a high achiever, but I was determined they should not now be disillusioned.

The first teacher I remember using this technique- quite by accident I’m sure- was my year 9 history teacher. I had been skulking along through the early years of high school trying not to do too well or seem too smart; not doing my classwork or homework; reading novels under the desk. I made the mistake of participating in the first history lesson of the year, probably to be polite to the new teacher. She jumped on me as a ‘talent’ and so, not wanting to disappoint, I had to actually do history that year.

Later as a medical student, I remember presenting a case in the corridor to my tutorial group and our tutor, let’s call her Dr. Winner. I was about to run off and go to a job interview. I thought I was doing a reasonable presentation, but Dr. Winner kept shaking her head.

‘Come on De Loony, you can do better than this’, she said. Still I floundered. ‘You must be nervous about your interview,’ she offered, and I gladly dropped my eyes to the floor, nodding solemnly.

Under her hopeful gaze I swotted Talley and O’Connor, practiced my examination techniques at home and especially applied myself in neurology- a favourite of mine anyway, but it happened to be Dr. Winner’s speciality.

Another tutor would race up the hospital stairs ahead of us, despite her Cam-booted broken foot. Come to think of it, I think she had broken her foot running on those stairs. She taught us how to get our case presentations to be ‘really slick’. Her enthusiasm was admirable. She had enough energy for our entire group. We were swept along by her backdraft.

Dr. Staghorn taught us ‘the backhand technique’ for examining a prostate, which I still use today. When I must.

Now I’m trying to think of the less memorable teachers, or those who were memorable for their negative effects.

Dr. Claude taught using the always popular Socratic method, which I hated. Still hate, if it’s not done well. Firing questions at impressionable students who don’t yet have the knowledge to answer them is humiliating at best. On the other hand, he let us observe while he inserted a chest drain. That was pretty cool.

And I’ll never forget the tutor who had me perform a testicular exam with no gloves. ‘You don’t need gloves’, said he. I often fly back in time to supply this quick rejoinder to my former, mouselike self: ‘Oh yes I do…’

I’ve learnt a bit about teaching from my years of being a student. I think a good teacher has enthusiasm for their subject, confidence enough to remain patient and kind even in the face of belligerent pupils, and knows enough about their material to be able to explain it well to those who know nothing. As another excellent teacher told me: ‘losing your audience is not a mark of intelligence’. (Who else out there remembers a certain expat American who made neuroscience come alive?)

A good and memorable teacher is one who also brings a little personal colour to their work, whether through the use of stories and anecdotes, well placed jokes or just a little eccentricity.

I would love to hear your stories about memorable teachers, or what you think are the characteristics of a good teacher.

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One comment

  1. I think patience is the key, as you highlight.
    I like to create a safe environment to risk ‘failure’, take ‘the next step forward’, to encourage a little transgression or considered rule breaking (then you’ve got to keep breathing when they break unexpected rules) and be direct and frank but only about the work, not about the person.
    I think you’re right on with your observation on expectations. If you ask people to jump a high bar, more often they will.

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