Two Kinds of Teachers

I’ve had good teachers and I’ve had bad teachers. Today, I’m not going to talk about bad teachers. I’m going to talk about two different kinds of good teachers.

I’ve had teachers who are really amazing and capturing the imaginations of the students, and who are really good at presenting the subject material in a compelling way. At the end of the class, the students (myself included) will say, “Wow! Dr. So-and-So is a fantastic teacher! He’s amazing! I’d recommend him to anyone.”

I’ve had other teachers who are also really amazing and capturing the imaginations of the students, and who are really good at presenting the subject material in a compelling way. At the end of the class, the students (myself included) will say, “Wow! I never knew entomology is so fascinating! I’m going to have to spend more time reading about it.”

In the first scenario, the attention was drawn to the teacher. The teacher was able, by virtue of charisma and skill, convince the students that something they know is boring can be made, for the duration of the class, into something fun. However, the teacher is the linchpin of the whole operation. Once the teacher is gone, the subject returns to its former dullness. Because in reality, it was the teacher that was interesting, not the subject.

In the second scenario, the attention was drawn to the subject being taught. The teacher was just a vehicle, a conduit through which the inherent magnificence of the subject matter is revealed. And the subject matter remains interesting, because the teacher didn’t make the subject interesting, he or she just revealed to the students why it already is interesting. And once the teacher is gone, the teacher can be forgotten, and the fascination of the subject matter remains intact. Because it wasn’t the teacher that was interesting, the teacher just unmasked and unlocked the truth about the subject material.

Both these teachers are good teachers. However, I think the second teacher is the better teacher. Because they aren’t drawing attention to themselves. They serve a higher master than their own image in the eyes of the students.

I think this distinction is crucially important when it comes to Gospel teaching. I remember individuals who were fantastic speakers. I remember that they gave mesmerizing talks in Sacrament meetings and thrilling lessons in Sunday School. But what do I remember? How good of a speaker they were… not what they said. In contrast, I’ve had Sunday School lessons that I remember to this very day, because the Gospel was unfolded to me in a new, revealing, and applicable way. But I don’t remember the person who taught the lesson—because they were in the service of Christ, not their own image. And in the service of Christ, Christ should be the person remembered, not the messenger. In our world that worships image self-esteem, it seems odd to say that I value being invisible. But what I want people to see and remember in all of my Gospel teaching is Christ and His message of salvation, not me.

Sometime in the next week or two, I plan to return to this subject, and explore specific ways to apply this distinction during the teaching process.

10 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Teachers

  1. Totally agree. I had an experience years ago in another stake, where a good sister was an amazing teacher, but it was almost all about her. People would leave the lesson talking about how awesome she was. I never heard anyone leave her lessons saying how awesome God, Jesus, the gospel or anything else was. It caused some of us in our stake callings some consternation, because she was pushing her Gospel of She to other local churches. Her efforts never brought anyone to be LDS or to believe in Christ, but it did push forth her special status for several years. Sad when members can quote such a member, but not the current prophet…..

  2. Rameumptom: That’s a good example.

    One of the reasons I insist that both kinds of teachers can be good teachers (even though one is clearly better than the other) is because I want to help people recognize the good teachers who do this. For example, Randy Bott at BYU is an example of this. He has the nation’s all-time highest rating on ratemyprofessor.com. Everybody raves about how awesome of a teacher he is. But to this day, I only remember how much I enjoyed his teaching… not what he actually taught. And I can’t find anyone else who remembers the subject matter either. They only remember how awesome the Brother Bott was. He’s a good teacher. But I think there’s a better way to teach.

    A couple of weeks ago, a high councilman from my ward told my roommate to “never read his talk again,” because my roommate was such a talented orator he doesn’t need the “crutch” of writing the talk out in advance. Others in the ward also raved about his delivery and his speaking skills. But I’ve asked people what he talked about… no one can remember. Again, he’s a great speaker… but I think there’s a better way.

    And so I want to emphasize that I’m not just talking about the extreme examples. I’m talking about the mundane distinction that we face each and every time we teach.

  3. I find the first class of teachers tend to speak a lot about their own experiences or how they personally experience the topic, making themselves the center topic, rather than the subject itself. Meanwhile the better teacher focuses on the topic and finds interesting facts and stories that revolve around the story.

  4. I struggle with that, because I also know that sharing personal experiences is one of the best ways to ground the material in real life. Also, for example, it is easier to invite others to repentance when you can share personal experiences of the same struggles they are facing.

  5. Which is why they are great teachers. However, a balance of personal experience that enhances the lesson, rather than the speaker, is what makes the biggest difference IMO.

    Many people join the Church because of a missionary’s strength. Not a problem, unless that is the only thing that maintains the person’s membership. Once the missionary leaves, there is nothing holding up the convert.

    But a missionary who is not only charismatic, but also teaches the person to develop his own testimony and lean on the strength of the local members has done a better job. He not only has prepared a person for baptism, but prepared himself for a life of spiritual growth.

    So it is in college and Gospel Doctrine classes, also.

  6. #3–Amen in Brother Bott. Great guy, I’m sure, but way over-hyped. And one of the reasons he’s so popular is his easy, easy A’s…

    I have much more respect for a teacher that can make a difficult and boring (but necessary) subject interesting than one who can tell interesting anecdotes all day. Making chemistry or calculus interesting to students who don’t like the subject is so much more difficult than making a course like mission prep interesting.

  7. LDS Philosopher,

    Facinating. I’m not sure I’ve ever had the ‘good’ type at all and I’ve had the ‘better’ type only once or twice. Dr. Fox of American Heritage comes to mind for the ‘better’ type.

  8. This is an interesting way to look at teachers and teaching. I kept wondering the whole time that I was reading what the learners actually saw the they liked. Could they not remember anything the teacher said because they were so carried away with her personal charisma or were they not paying attention.

    There are some teachers who forget that their job is not to work out their own personal demons or pet peeves and therefore there is much of their personal bias in everything they do. That doesn’t mean they are not good teachers. It just means that they are more aware of their own issues than they are the needs of class. All things being equal there will be some people who will learn something new from them as well, as we all struggle with similar challenges.

    In the long run, however much a student takes away from any class depends as much on the class member as it does the teacher. It is nice to have a teacher that isn’t boring but if a person really wants to learn it is possible to learn from a boring teacher. Not every teacher can reach everyone. The only bad teacher is the one who can’t reach anyone.

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