Monday, 18 March 2013

What makes a great teacher?

I've had some amazing teachers over the years, first at Fiordland College and then during my time at the University of Canterbury. My first high school teacher that gave up some of his weekends to take willing students into the outdoors - giving me my first taste of kayaking. My first Computer Science lecturer was much better than many other lecturers I had in later years. This was recognized by many others, I believe he was nominated as the favourite lecturer and won the prize multiple times.

The last few years has given me the opportunity to take the role of teacher a few times, both academically as a tutor with the Computer Science department (for previously mentioned lecturer), and in the outdoors with the university's kayaking/tramping clubs. 

I was privileged to instruct whitewater kayaking beside friends who have gone on to work as teachers, as instructors at Outward Bound, and become full time sea kayak guides. I have another close friend with whom I've tramped, climbed and skied many times who instructs in the outdoors for C.P.I.T - while young I consider him to be a truly great instructor.

What makes these people stand out?

All the great teachers I've come across are really passionate. The kind of passion that almost can't help but be infectious. A great teacher is always engaging, usually very articulate, and in my experience usually has a peculiarly wry sense of humour.

Recently I've been going through basic training with Search & Rescue. I have had separate instructors teaching very similar content and wanted to jot down why I found one so much better. The impression built up clearly involves lots of subtle interactions and behaviours. 

The first instructor, Ross Gordon, is widely recognized as a brilliant instructor, he was very recently awarded the Queens Service Order for his contributions to Land Search and Rescue. He ran a course that combined Tracking and Search Methods in one full on weekend. There were four of us who attended that course went on to do the Tracking course  run by Tai Poutini Polytechnic.

I want to explore what and how Ross taught versus what was taught by the course I attended this weekend. There were two instructors, both with years and years of experience, although one was teaching for the first time. The course was also only covering half of what Ross got through in the same amount of time.

Firstly, Ross backed himself, that is not to say he was arrogant but rather his mannerisms exuded confidence and his statements were clear and unwavering. Having an instructor who appears to be the least unsure does not fill you with confidence. There is nothing wrong with a new tutor taking a few exercises and growing as an instructor but you always expect them to know their business. Our aspiring tutor this weekend kept informing the class that he wasn't very good, and asked for clarifications from the more experienced instructor.

The biggest point that separates the great teacher from the mediocre (in my opinion) is the great teacher really respects you. The mentor who says you're doing a good job and will immediately be useful and helpful in applying the skills taught really does give you the urge to learn more. Ross made me feel like I could learn enough tracking to be actually be useful in an afternoon; the instructors this weekend simply talked of the many follow up courses spanning years before you could possibly consider doing even the most basic thing in the field. Where we did well for Ross, he would tell us how some current searchers could learn from us; doing well this weekend wasn't really highlighted.

Ross was constantly regaling us with relevant "war stories", drawing from his personal experiences to provide context and encourage the mastery of skills. The instructors this weekend however certainly tried that but their stories were forced and not often related to the context of what we were doing.

Ross was sharing research, unproven theories and ideas with people on their very first SAR course, trying new things while setting big goals for us. Boredom is the enemy of education. Running out of content, or extremely long tea breaks while course exercises are set up will cause some people to get bored. Ross had provided current research papers and books on advanced search techniques while he had to go set up, this weekend we just had more cups of tea.

The great teacher also encourages and challenges you, and challenges themselves. Striving to do better, while pushing for the same from you.

I think instruction in the outdoors is one of the hardest domains to excel as a teacher, but the precious few who do it well leave the deepest impressions.