What makes a teacher great? A teacher’s greatness isn’t necessarily linked to how well they can personally execute whatever it is they are trying to teach. For example, I’ve had two different instrumental music teachers from whom I failed to learn much. One was a singing teacher who could demonstrate a technique by singing it, but who couldn’t explain how to achieve it, because it came naturally to her. She couldn’t explain how I could get from where I was (yet to master the technique) to her level of mastery. As a consequence I would either feel like a failure, or frustrated, and it also meant I didn’t stick with the teacher, because I didn’t feel like I was learning much from her. Anything I did well, she would praise, but I didn’t go to her for praise, I went to her to learn and improve. The other music teacher gave me commercial recordings of her playing the instrument, perhaps to inspire me (?) but all it did was make me feel inadequate, because she was so far above me in skill. The other thing I did was try to copy her verbatim, which didn’t help me to develop my own style or expression, or understand what I was doing.
To me a great teacher is one who has had to travel the misty road before me, maybe they are not even that far ahead, but ahead of me enough that they know what it feels like, and that they can explain how to get to the next travel destination on the path. If they found the road hard, and the skills were hard-won, then that’s a person I can learn from. If they once lacked a skill I lack, and they had to learn it from scratch, without some kind of innate talent, and if they are someone who can consciously describe, draw or show me how, then I can learn the skill too.
It reminds me of trying to master Zumba from videos. When i watch a video of someone who has advanced Zumba skills doing a routine at tempo, then I will just be flailing around my lounge room if I try to copy them, but if I can see the steps broken down and consciously described, and maybe even get some helpful hints, then I can understand and start to do the step. I may never be great at it, but at least I have the building blocks. But if someone who has always been a graceful dancer tries to teach me and presupposes certain knowledge, or coordination, then I will struggle.
I love a teacher who can – and who wants to – keep learning, because if they keep learning, they keep immersing themselves in that space where they are not expert at something, where they have to try and break through frustrations to master something. If our teacher can learn, then We Can Be Taught!