It’s a question that tends to get raised at all the wrong times, and not something that really gets thought about all that often, normally not until there is a problem. But when it comes to something as important as instructing within education and training of any person, whether it be school students or mature adult students, the ideal is where any student is taught by a ‘good teacher.’ But what exactly makes a good teacher?
Right or wrong this is a question that has many subjective answers. And this is a good thing. If the quality of an instructor was purely measured in hard objective indicators then there would be a convergence of instructional skills and techniques and the art (and skill) of teaching would take on a very linear, predictable pattern.
Best of all everyone would be a perfect teacher!
Considering the nearly infinite amount of subjects that exist, the amount of breakthroughs that are common knowledge and new cutting edge discoveries that are being found & taught – the teaching of any material has to do the subject justice but also achieve learning within the student.
This leads to different teaching styles to suit both the subject and the student/s.
So what makes a good teacher?
There is an extensive laundry list of qualities that instructors “should” have, all the way from honesty, courage, integrity, leadership, technical excellence, sense of purpose, encouragement, being a role model, clear communicator and many others … just to start with, but in many ways these are the qualities that we would expect of any teacher, educator, instructor … whatever title we choose.
After all if an instructor didn’t know their subject material, then they would hardly begin to qualify as ‘good‘.
On the other hand there are instructors who know the material so well, they can deliver training at any time in any space to any audience with confidence and poise and yet despite all of these seemingly natural talents can still yield poor learning outcomes in the students being taught.
So when we look at just a handful of the qualities (subject knowledge as the example) above and know that it is so immensely difficult to be a perfect person, how can we begin to answer ‘what makes a good teacher?’
Teaching is a Dialogue, not a Monologue.
One thing to be conscious of is that the teaching process is a dialogue. At it’s simplest, anyone can simply ‘present‘ information, and learning ultimately needs to be achieved by the student.
However teaching is a two way dialogue, Where information is presented and delivered by the instructor, and the student is responsible for learning. But in the middle of both actions, there is an exchange.
The teacher not only needs to present and deliver, but also must engage with the audience being taught. To that end engagement comes in many different forms whether its carefully confirming a teaching stage through questioning technique or through supervised practice, or a whole host of other methods.
But there are two additional skills that can be leveraged to take a good instructor to the next level.
Being able to read the audience
Regardless of the teaching environment the ability to ‘read the audience’ is a critical skill. Why?
Instructors who have the ability to not only know subject matter completely, reduce it down to understandable language and appropriately explain specific topics to make the information digestible are one thing, but instructors who can ‘read the audience’ and accurately assess the level of engagement truly stand out.
How so? Because the ability to know when the audience is; losing interest, getting confused, rejecting taught concepts or getting bored because the instructor is going too slowly allows them (the instructor/teacher) to understand that the current teaching approach is at risk of failing.
The ability to sense and know what the taught audience is experiencing and their level of engagement is enough to let the instructor know whether their current style and approach to the material being taught is working or whether another approach needs to be taken.
This leads to the next skill.
Being able to Adapt.
Simply knowing that your audience is on the brink of tuning out is one thing. Sensing that they want you to speed things up is something else. But the question quickly becomes ‘What will you do about it?’
This is where an ability to adapt comes in to effect. And this is a skill that is harder to cultivate than you would think. Why?
Most lessons are designed and developed not only with the teaching objectives in mind that the students must achieve, but a method & style of delivery is typically ‘baked’ into the lesson. When the audience isn’t quite with you, changing your style and approach will result in you having to change the way your entire lesson (remainder of) is delivered. And this can mean throwing away much of your lesson plan and flying by the seat of your pants, just to keep your class involved.
The Hardest aspect to all of this is that we naturally want to stay committed to what we think we ‘should do’ which is exactly what we’ve planned, when in fact there is a clear need to change mid lesson.
Being able to read an audience is a skill that is easier to talk about then to master. It is also a skill that requires your sub-conscious to regularly sample your audience to gauge their body language, eye contact and posture at any given time. When the readings are weak the need to adapt takes over, and this may need to take place at any given time during training.
So despite all of the numerous qualities that instructors should strive to have available to them, the ability to read an audience and adapt during a lesson are critical to your success as an instructor.
These are two dependent skills that can take a good training session with likely poor outcomes and turn it into a training session which your students can rave about with the highest degrees of learning, even if it isn’t what you thought would be best.