Connecting People: On What Makes a Good Teacher

Posted on April 11, 2012 in Education

By Madhumita Subramanian:

O Captain, my captain” yapped the boys of Welton Academy. Fighting back tears, they tower over their desks, in their last attempt at expressing their solidarity and gratitude for a man who had transformed them from playful boys to thinking, independent adults. Mr. Keating, effortlessly and convincingly played by Robin Williams, looks on with pride in his eyes, assured in his impact and comforted by the thought that these men will live life by their rules. He utters “Thank you” for truly what more could a teacher ask for, than a proof of the values he attempted to inculcate. This scene from Dead Poet’s Society remains etched in my memory as one of the most heart-rending and  most indicative of change. As a student I yearned for a teacher like Mr Keating and as a teacher I longed to be like Mr Keating.

What made Mr. Keating stand apart? What made the boys flock around, hanging to every word he said? What made them want to put to application his theories? It was Connect. He had the ability to reach out and strike a chord. It led to an intense bond. Respect automatically flowed thereafter. The Welton boys connected with Mr Keating for they felt he understood them, he knew what made them tick, he knew what they wanted. His words, actions, thoughts reflected this and therefore what came across was genuine care. It was this care that formed a strong bond. It was this care that made the boys trust him. It was this care that got the boys invested in him as a teacher and a mentor.  The role of a teacher is not just that of imparting knowledge but it’s of a developer, a builder of character and maximiser of human potential. In order to do so the teacher needs to first connect with his students, as a fellow human being. This is the crucial role of Connect, in being an effective teacher.

It begins with the teacher laying bare his true self. The more genuine one is, the greater the connect.  As a teacher I need to “share” the real me with my students. The need to know me inside out, they need to know me as a person. How do I bring myself into the class? By sharing what gets me most excited. When I share what I enjoy the most, I am my most true self.  Think back to classes you enjoyed the most and inevitably it would have been led by a teacher who had a passion for the subject. She would have exhibited a desire and a joy that twinkled in her eyes as she engaged with the concepts. The genuineness is infectious. It instantly gets you connected with the person and hence the content! For me it was my English Literature teacher at high school. I was mesmerized by the depth of emotion she displayed as she led. She was comfortable being vulnerable in our presence. She was ready to cry, to be moved, to laugh hysterically. She was human and I connected with her. My love for literature was born the day she revealed her true self. In the case of Mr Keating, it was poetry. Who would have thought an otherwise drab, overcomplicated subject as prose would get teenage boys “live deep and suck out all  the marrow of life?” Ah, but Mr Keating let his passion drip as he spoke, he brought the lines of verse to life, he made it real, he made it pertinent and the boys caught on and connected. As a teacher I brought music into my daily teaching wherever possible. Concepts were sung, rhymes were played, beats were drummed. That’s how we learnt and we learnt well. My children are proud 8-year old musicians in their own right and our bond has been strengthened by the music we play and chords we strike!

Good teachers connect by respecting individuality and personal space.  Effective mentors display immense faith in the potential of their students. They inherently believe every child is capable of greatness in his/her own right. They see their role as being one that unravels this potential. “What will your verse be? “ Keating asks, urging them to discover themselves, find their meaning and unique quality. These teachers value uniqueness, the fact that each child has a different view of the world, each child may process information differently, each child is an independent mind. They respect it and allow for it. They engage in discussions, they debate, they have dialogues and in doing so make every viewpoint heard and valued.  Imagine a space where you feel comfortable expressing your viewpoint without fear of judgment. How free you would feel, how comforted, how grateful to the individual who has created that environment and how connected to her you would be! A good mentor understands the needs of every child and creates systems to provide for it through related study material or choice of work or making clear the connection between what they are doing and what they want. They make it relevant. As a student receiving this attention, I immediately sense the care being imparted and I therefore begin to value the individual and his/her opinions. I connect.  Mr Keating, though un-enthused  by Hopkins’ arrogant and bullish attempt at poetry in the form of “cat sat on the mat”, doesn’t  demean the boy. Instead he appreciates the simplicity, finds a positive and pushes for the boy to think if he has lived up to his potential. What Keating therefore reflected was respect for Hopkins’ individuality and faith in his ability. It was this respect that urged Hopkins to be the handful of boys to show his gratitude at the end through the symbolic gesture of standing on his desk. He too had connected.

These are two simple actions but essentially the message they send across is – I am like you, a person. I understand you. The more we try to adopt a persona, try to play a role, the less likely the connect is going to happen. Our closest, strongest relationships are with people with whom the above message holds true. It’s the founding block of trust, faith and belief in the relationship. The teacher is a parent in the life of a student. The teacher is the hand that molds the clay. To be effectively crafted, the clay needs to allow the potter to guide. This requires immense faith and trust only possible through building connect.

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”  In essence a teacher taps the power of investment to help her students find their own voice, to break out. It all begins with a connection.

Madhumita Subramanian is a Program Manager at Teach For India, a national movement of young leaders to end educational inequity in India. She taught for two-years, full-time at Pant Nagar Municipal School in Mumbai as a part of Teach For India’s first cohort of Fellows (2009-2011).