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December 30, 2020

Teachers – The Good, the Bad, and the Unwilling

Alice Gledhill


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Good teachers have the power to shape and inspire young minds. They play a huge role in our childhood, and influence the career path we choose after school. I wouldn't be writing this today if I hadn't enjoyed my English classes as much as I did!

But bad teachers are just as memorable and influential, though for all the wrong reasons. I remember a few teachers I've had that have taught me that teaching isn't for everyone.

"I Don't Enjoy Teaching"

As a kid, I really wanted to be able to sing and play the guitar. I envisioned myself performing on a sold-out tour to a crowd of adoring fans, my name in lights. (I was a bit of a fantasist back then.)

But considering I'd never even held a guitar before, I was probably going to need a few lessons first. So, after making some inquiries in our area, my mom found a local guitar tutor with a good reputation. Apparently, he even made his own guitars. Promising... So my mom got in touch and arranged an introductory lesson. Worldwide tour, here I come!

We arrived at the tutor's house, and he let us both in. He showed us his workshop and all his beautiful handcrafted guitars. First impressions were good so far. He showed me the different strings and frets (I really was starting from scratch!) and a few basic chords. "This is great," I thought. "I can already taste the fame!" We immediately scheduled another lesson.

But that was about as good as it got. Just as we were about to leave, he told me, "I don't enjoy teaching." Oh.

A Demotivation Spiral

And unfortunately, that quickly became apparent in our lessons. He never seemed fully present or particularly happy. He would check his phone every so often, and I felt like I was just wasting his time – he obviously had better things to get on with. Neither of us enjoyed the hour-long sessions, and, as a result, I would never practice at home.

I found myself stuck in a catch-22: I was unwilling to put in the effort outside of lessons because they were so unenjoyable, but that made them all the more tedious because I never made any progress!

My plans for stardom faded away, and I simply didn't care enough to try anymore. Who wants a Grammy anyway?!

Hitting the Right Note

But one week I had a burst of motivation and, for once, sat down to practice. I tried to remember what he'd taught me – practice the bars slowly and gradually build up speed – and I repeated it over and over until it came easily.

The following lesson was the best we ever had. He could see that I had applied myself and practiced, and he could now help me move on to something harder. I felt a sense of pride and achievement, and he was evidently more enthused to teach.

Looking back, I can understand how demotivating and almost insulting it must have been for him to see that I hadn't bothered to practice each week. In truth, he wasn't a bad teacher – he had the skills and expertise to teach, after all. He just lacked passion for teaching, which was exacerbated in large part by my unwillingness to do my bit.

Teaching When You Don't Want to Teach

On the other hand, I recall having a Film Studies tutor at university who was reluctant to teach, despite the fact that his students were fully committed.

He was a Ph.D. student, and in order to attain his qualification he had to lead undergraduate seminars. You'd think that since he was teaching his chosen topic of European Cinema, he'd be enthusiastic and inspired, eager to discuss the great early filmmakers like Jean-Luc Goddard and Roberto Rossellini with like-minded individuals. But you'd be wrong.

Every two-hour class was the same: we'd watch part of a film that we'd already seen, and then sit in almost complete silence. It was agonizing.

The tutor barely attempted to fuel the discussion, seldom asking questions to spark debate and never responding to our contributions. It was like trying to get blood from a stone!

It was no surprise that by the end of the term, only a handful of us would come to his seminars – and we only showed up for a good attendance score!

He struck me as a bad teacher not only because he lacked mentoring skills – there was no teaching strategy, and he seemed too nervous to speak, unable to lead the class effectively – but also because he wasn't willing to put any effort in. We all did the reading each week, but he never enabled us to discuss it properly. Likely he only ran the classes to get a good attendance score, too. He was doing the bare minimum to achieve his Ph.D..

Bad Student or Bad Teacher?

Now I'm having driving lessons and I've been through a number of different instructors.

One of them, like my guitar teacher, made it very clear that he didn't enjoy teaching. He would often cancel the lesson at short notice and give a half-hearted excuse. "Am I so bad that he can't face another lesson with me?" I often wondered. "Am I just unteachable?!"

But whenever he did give me a lesson, he always seemed bored and annoyed when I made a mistake (and I made a lot of mistakes). I lost my confidence, which of course made me a worse learner. I wouldn't ask questions – too afraid I might look stupid. And I would constantly second-guess myself. Before a lesson was over, I'd already be dreading the next.

Then a COVID-19 lockdown put an emergency stop to our lessons, and I was secretly quite relieved. We never scheduled another.

How to Avoid Being a Bad Teacher

My current driving instructor is the complete opposite. He always seems happy to see me, he welcomes questions, and he focuses each lesson on what I want to cover. He gives me lots of constructive feedback and encouragement, and he always seems eager to begin.

Better yet, he uses a variety of teaching strategies to accommodate me. Sometimes he'll use diagrams to explain maneuvers, or he'll even do a demonstration so that I know what an emergency stop should feel like, for example. (I was always a little too tentative on the brakes.)

In contrast, my "bad" teachers all lacked passion for teaching. I think they forgot why they were teaching in the first place. A reluctant teacher isn't necessarily a bad teacher, but I've learned that enthusiasm is required for students to flourish.

Certain jobs evidently aren't for everyone. But while it may not be easy to change your career in the fallout of COVID-19, there are small changes you can make to improve your job satisfaction. If you're feeling stuck in a role that you don't enjoy, download our 2021 Life Plan.

Have you had any bad teachers who hindered your learning? Were you able to make it a better experience? Let us know in the comments!

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