I was never the greatest student back in high school. I was miserable at math (still am), and miserable at English. I had to take makeup classes after school when I was in Grade 11, because my grammar was “atrocious”. Ironic that I’m now a writer (take that, Mrs. Dicresce!). I muddled through high school, managed to maintain about a B+ average, and escaped as fast as humanly possible once I was done.

Despite my former lack of enthusiasm for school, I love to learn. And the best way I have found to learn, to REALLY learn something, is to teach it to someone else. That’s how I learned, really learned television production. By teaching my volunteers at the cable station the finer points of lighting, camera, audio, directing, and producing. It’s how I learned web design. By being forced to learn HTML, Dreamweaver and Flash in 2 weeks back in 1999, and then showing 20 college students how to do it.

I read a lot of blogs and interact with a lot of people online. And I’m always learning. There are plenty of great teachers out there. A secret to success? Teach people something. Share your knowledge and experience.

Here are some things I’ve learned about what makes the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher.

Doing Is Better Than Showing

I fondly remember my Grade 11 History class as “nap time”. If I was actually awake while the teacher droned on endlessly about the war of this and the revolution of that, I most certainly wasn’t paying attention. However, when I was in my earlier high school years, I lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) and our history classes took place in the wilderness, up close and personal with majestic totem poles, carved canoes, and longhouses. Our field trips took place in the same places where Emily Carr created her famous paintings. Haida elders would come to our class and teach us their language, legends and art. It was captivating, breathtaking and you’re damn right we learned a lot.

It’s one thing to blabber on to people about a topic, to subject your learners to death by PowerPoint. It’s entirely another take them, show them, make them do, see and experience. People learn so much more when they are an ACTIVE participant in their learning. Great teachers make their students take action and participate. The result is, the students retain what they’ve learned and are excited and enthused to pass it on to others.

Beyond The Comfort Zone

My friend Dave is a piano player and singer. He can play ANYTHING on the piano, in pretty much any key. He’s an extremely talented musician with years of experience. And he can’t read a note of music. The best part about being a musician who can’t read music is you don’t have any rules to abide by. Dave is free to experiment and explore and create. (Incidentally, Paul MacCartney can’t read music either.)

Every class I have ever taught has an underdog. The one person that walks in and you can just tell they feel perplexed being there. Since I do a lot of technical training, my underdogs are usually those people who don’t feel comfortable working with technology, who have been forced to attend the course by their employer and really don’t think they are going to be able to learn anything.

Underdogs are most rewarding people to teach, because they are the like the musicians who can’t read music. They are completely open to learning, because don’t have any preconceived notions. They are a blank canvas.

It takes tremendous patience to teach the underdog. But being a great teacher requires that you not only share your knowledge, but that you encourage people to break out of their comfort zones, to explore, experiment and create. Like my friend Dave, and Sir Paul, breaking down the barriers of rules and preconception leaves one free to experience true understanding.

Passion, Passion and More Passion

Have you ever been completely captivated by a speaker? Check out Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk and you will see an excellent example of this. In her talk, she goes from laughing hysterically to shouting to talking softly to crying. You walk away and I guarantee you will be thinking about it for the rest of the day.

I had a Math teacher in Grade 11, Mr. Hanley. Now, as mentioned, I HATED Math. Was lousy at it. But I LOVED Mr. Hanley’s class. Why? Because he was absolutely passionate about his subject. In his world, there was nothing more beautiful, more incredible than algebra, calculus and functions (shudder). Every day he found a new and interesting way to get us worked up about it. And even though I still completely sucked at Math, I was having fun. I learned something, too, because I ended up with a B.

Being passionate is the single most important thing you can do to be a great teacher. If you truly are passionate about what you are teaching, your students will be excited about what they are learning. It’s that simple. Passionate teachers create passionate students.

Learn to Share, Share to Learn

There is something about sharing knowledge with other people that allows it to really sink in to your brain. If you can explain it well, it means you truly understand it. But teaching is more than that to me. The best part of teaching is seeing what people can create once the have the knowledge.

You already know a lot. Now is the time to share it with others.

photo credit: talldude07, MorgueFile