During my school days, I had many great teachers, some of whom I still remember fondly. Some were not so great, some were uninspiring or downright unpleasant; and I often wondered why they spent their days making lives miserable for everyone.
So when I started my career as a teacher, my unspoken motto is: Be Nice.
Looking back over all these years, I am quite satisfied that as a teacher, I never had to shout at, bribe, insult, be sarcastic, apply pressure to my students.
First of all, let me clarify that it is not about the subject I taught. All the subjects I taught were dry, tough and unappetizing. It’s not me who think that way but my students who said these. Subjects I taught were a natural turn-off for most students, for example: Mathematics, Statistics, Programming, Science, English (to students from China). Not exactly sexy, right?
I also want to qualify that not all my students got fantastic results; there were average improvement as well. But all shared one common outcome after learning with me – they all felt better about themselves and about their ability to learn. They all felt that the whatever subjects they learnt with me felt easier than they thought it should be. When they looked back, the learning journey with me was not wasted time.
Some principles on being nice:
- Believe: I always believe that there is a huge reservoir of potential in my student. I never think that my job is to fill a bucket. That is too much hard work for me. I simply believe that no one is stupid. If my student appears to be it’s because I haven’t found the way to tap into his potential. The real work I do is to use whatever ways I can to unlock the mind seated in front of me every session.
- Make it fun: I always make learning as enjoyable and fun as it can be. If my student is exceedingly bored one day, I will share some interesting stories to cheer him up. If my student finds that whatever he is learning is irrelevant, I will stop right there and try to show him why he needs to learn what he is learning. If my student looks troubled, I will try to provide a listening ear and do whatever I can to make him feel better.
- Empathise: I always empathise, never judge. Yes, there were moments when I quietly seethed at my student’s unwillingness to put in more hard work. But I try my very best always to ask myself this question, “Have you really walked in his shoes? Do you really know how he feels? What gives me the right to judge him?”. And frankly, students need an ally in me, not another judge. Most of the time, they have plenty of those around them already.
- Listen: I ask and listen, to lay a groundwork of trust. I never attempt to start teaching any student with the attitude of “I am the expert, you listen to me.” To me, the student is the expert – on his own mind. I am merely a messenger with some very heavy messages in the form of formulas and challenging questions, who is desperately trying to find a way in. But the door can only be unlocked from inside, by the student, when he is willing.
- Lead by example: I show by example that I am really fascinated by what I teach. I really put in the hard work to get to the bottom of what I teach. And if sometimes my student asks me things I do not know, I always admit that I don’t know the answer, but offer to check it out. And I ask my student to never let me get away without giving him a satisfactory answer. There is another thing which I always do when I face something I don’t know – I try to figure it out by logical deduction and educated guesses. The point I want to bring across to my student is, that he doesn’t have to know everything under the sun. More important is to have the intellectual skill to get real close to the answer. This kind of intellectual skill is worth much, much more than merely knowing the answers.
- Think long term: I focus on the long term. Even though I know by applying some threat tactics, some sob stories, or some sarcasm, I can probably get my student to do what I want, I never do it. Even if I know that by making him memorise formulas and steps, he can score well in the next test, I don’t do it. Why? It’s because I believe in the long-term good. I will not destroy the trust we have by telling a single lie or by manipulating him, and I will not make my student see learning as a meaningless task of regurgitating facts and formulas. I build long term relationships. I aim to deliver real understanding. When my student repeatedly fails his test, as much as I am worried of being fired, I remind myself not to lose faith in the little guy, because who knows what magnificent person he will one day become?
- Take exams lightly: I never see exams as a fair or accurate gauge of my student’s real potential or worth. Some of my students felt like total losers when they fail their exams, but I always reminded them that exams are a poor tool to measure their real talent. Life is a better tool. Failing at exams is not equal to failing in life. Many people who suck at schooling turn up as winners in life. To my surprise, none of my students ever used this against me as an excuse to give up on exams. I believe that deep in their hearts, they know that how well they do in school still affects their lives to great extents. But by telling my students truly how I feel about exams, I feel that I have lifted a terrible burden off their chests, and exams become not a threat to their identities and self-esteems, but just a challenge to be tackled, a game to be won.
- Adjust and adapt: I adjust and adapt to suit the student, not the other way around. Perhaps one of the benefits of being self-doubting is that, I never think that I have the perfect framework or formula to solve any problem or to do any questions. I only offer to my student what works for me, and tells him plainly that if it doesn’t seem to make sense to him, please just disregard what I offered. Sometimes when I see a student come out with his unique method to solve a problem, I will just scratch my head, and try very hard to understand his method. If I fail at that, I will ask him to explain to me. The greatest lesson is usually learnt when I start to see things through my student’s eyes. That is when I can start to really reshape my lesson so that he can easily understands it.