Seth Godin has a great blog post  about two different types of teaching- one that’s all about facts and procedures, and one that’s more about learning to see and solve interesting problems.  This caught my attention, because I’ve been having alot of conversations lately with folks about what makes a good teacher, and the difference between “teaching” and being a mentor.

In the medical profession, folks graduate from medical school, but they are not yet ready to go out and practice medicine- they need to do some more formal training- a residency- usually in some sort of specialty.  (Even family practice is a specialty.)  Yet in residency, the training and additional education young doctors need before they can practice on their own comes in two forms.  One is specialized reading- sometimes the reading is assigned, but most of the time, it is assumed you will use your “educational money” and buy the specialty text books you’ll need, not only as a resident but in practice, when you come up against something you might not have seen before.  The second is on the job practice, where you see patients but are supervised by another “attending” physician, who is supposed to help you learn and guide you, like a mentor.  Not all doctors teaching residents are good at imparting the art of their practice to others, as well as the base knowledge required to do the job.  Practicing medicine and teaching it are two different things, and not everyone is good at both.

Similarly, many teachers went into teaching because they love learning.  They loved being in school themselves.  They loved having a guiding path through all the cool stuff there is to know, and somewhere along the way, decided they wanted to do this themselves.  They mastered the whole school process, start to finish. They almost have a nostalgia for school- it is a precious place to them.   But the problem is often that the best students don’t always make the best teachers.

Teaching is a different skill set from learning.  While teaching and learning are clearly complimentary, they are not the same thing.  My dad, for example, was a brilliant engineer, and fantastic at math.  Yet when he tried to help me with calculus homework, I often ended up frustrated and in tears.  For me, the conflict arose because he largely couldn’t remember what it was like not to know all this math, and couldn’t explain it in a way a neophyte would understand- what the Heath Brothers call “The Curse of Knowledge” in their great book, Made to Stick. I think many teachers suffer from this problem as well-they love their subject matter and understand it so well that they have a hard time remembering what it was like not to know.

The skill of being able to be a guide through complicated material, all while making it an exciting and engaging process is a rare skill.  While I think there are methods and checklists and other tools people can use to help make what they know accessible to others, great teaching is an art form.  It requires not only understanding the subject area, but understanding it well enough and liking it enough that you can make it exciting for almost anyone.  It requires a bit of stage presence, improv skills, and being able to communicate with the students so you know what they understand and what they don’t.  Teaching at its best, is an interactive experience between teacher and student. (This is also why going to high school or college just by watching a bunch of DVD’s is not equivalent to being enrolled in a real school with real classrooms, but I digress.)

Sometimes the best teachers are people who are less interested in the one true path, but recognize there are many individual ways to get to the same goal.  They are good mentors, guides and parents.  They are interested in someone else’s success, and they get joy in seeing others succeed, and don’t worry that someone else may be smarter than they are- in fact, the best teachers are often looking for those smarter than themselves, so they can continue learning and growing themselves.

The essence of a great teacher involves being passionate about your subject area, and being a fantastic communicator, who can turn that love of knowledge into a spark of inspiration and curiosity in others.  It’s the reason why I think all teachers should learn a bit about marketing and the way people turn commercial ideas into what Seth Godin would call “an idea virus” that spreads on its own.  Using the tools the Heath Brothers talk about in Made to Stick, for example, can help anybody make their ideas and communications more effective and more memorable, by essentially hacking what our brain natively finds most interesting.  This can help business people end “death by powerpoint” presentations, but it can just as easily make you a better writer, a better teacher, and a better communicator across the board.

In the end, good teaching requires that people are personally invested in the process and look on it as mentoring as well as a delivery of knowledge vehicle.  The teacher might be driving the bus, but the bus can be an old school bus, a greyhound, a tricked out  tour bus, a local or express.  The bus comes in many sizes, varieties and with different amenities.  But unless the bus is responsive to the needs of the passengers, and can get them to where they need to be, it’s not very useful.  The driver, like a good teacher, needs to be aware of the road, the path, and the needs of the passengers in order to do the best job possible.

We need to make sure all of our teachers- at every level, from elementary through graduate school, training and beyond- understand not only how to make lesson plans, but how to meet the needs of kids in their classrooms.  And sometimes, it’s going to require “marketing” that science lesson, history or math to a group of reluctant learners, to get them on the right road in the long run.

Are you a good teacher?  What makes a good teacher to you?  Is it a skill or an art or a mixture of both?