the good, the bad, and the ugly

I have had many teachers through the course of my life, and expect to have many more as time goes on. But something I have been able to identify very quickly about every teacher I’ve ever had, are their strengths and weaknesses of teaching the topic at hand.

My favorite college professor is Dale Bryant, the long-time computer science teacher at Hudson Valley Community College. Dale’s approach to teaching was fun, energetic, and engaging. And he was under the impression that if you wanted to learn, any way you could was great. If the way he discussed and presented material didn’t click with you, he didn’t mind if you went searching elsewhere for an explanation that worked for you. This happened many times with my friend John Deignan who would routinely ask me questions about programming concepts in general: object-oriented issues, library questions, the ‘how does this work’, and the ‘why do it this way instead of that way’ questions.

For John, Dale’s explanation of template classes and functions in C++ didn’t gel. But with both more time available, and an understanding of his personality, I was able to come up with a metaphor that worked for him.

I have been fortunate to have very few teachers who were bad, and even fewer who were ugly. One of my first-semester instructors at HVCC, in trying to teach us Excel and Access discovered that she didn’t know how to do the assignments in the book. And her idea of teaching was to ask questions of the class, and then practically shout the answer out if no one spoke up within about 10 seconds.

Contrast that approach with my calculus teacher who had (either on his own, or discovered) come up with little songs and ditties to help us remember how to do derivatives – including his famous quotient derivative rule song to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it”. Or my discrete structures professor who would crack jokes about having an 8AM class full of computer science folks who don’t start cogitating until lunch time.

Unfortunately, this semester I have had the experience of having another bad teacher. The first day of class sounded promising, and I was actually looking forward to his approach, but he quickly showed an inability to teach. He may know the material, and be able to perform the tasks required in database consulting and administration, but he can’t teach it. I had a leg-up on the rest of the class in having taken a couple database classes in the past, and of designing and implementing several on my own for either other classes, or personal projects. But when even the folks who have been to every class aren’t “getting it” (not just those who have missed half the classes), I have to wonder whether or not he knows what he’s doing.

The common trait across all the good teachers I’ve had has been interest in the subject. Whether it’s literature, composition, programming, terrorism, or something else, good teachers are interested in the material. The common trait I’ve seen across those few excellent teachers I’ve had has been the ability to connect with students, and not hold themselves above the student, but rather to remember what it’s like to not know yet.

The bad and ugly teachers I’ve had have shared something too, they’ve all been unable to communicate – and they’ve all forgotten what it’s like to not know. Some of them haven’t known the material, or have not cared. But they’ve all been unable to connect with their students.

I don’t know how good teachers appear. It might be by birth, upbringing, discipline, predisposition, personality, or because they had a great teacher who inspired them. Maybe it’s a combination of all of those factors. To those who are just blasé, I hope you can become better. To you who plain suck – please quit: you’re doing more harm than good.

But to those great teachers out there, thank you for your efforts – we notice.