What Makes a Great Teacher?

One of my most memorable teachers in high school was my grade ten algebra teacher, Mr. Buckley. Tall, lanky and very English, on the first day of school Mr. Buckley instilled immediate fear in us by merely furrowing his Frida Kahlo eyebrows.

Those Eyebrows Got Our Attention

Those Eyebrows Got Our Attention

So how did this seemingly intimidating individual endear himself to his math students  year in and  year out?

A Good Mentor is Authoritative and Not Authoritarian

Mr. Buckley certainly had his challenge cut out for him. Most of us were jaded survivors of the “New Math” taught in elementary school so we were firmly entrenched in our comfort zone of complacency towards any additional math instruction.

New Math Backfired

New Math Backfired

We acknowledged that Mr. Buckley had legitimate authority in teaching us. He was knowledgeable in his subject and was enlisted to transfer this information to us. But how did he prevent delinquent behavior in the classroom where many other teachers couldn’t stop the acting out?

It was simple. Mr. Buckley turned learning math into a fun game. He dreamed up spur of the moment nicknames for some of the students.  Like the pet owner naming their kitten or puppy based on the personality and antics of the animal, our nicknames were quirky and endearing and everybody wanted one.

Those thick brows started to look less sinister  and his expression seemed to soften. This strategy not only reduced any trepidation we might have had of being eaten alive by the Heathcliff-like figure in front of the classroom, but we realized the guy was funny and on our side all the way.

He created manageable objectives for us to reach each week. Pegged as “quizzies” these simple little tests recapped what we had learned in the classroom that week. He frequently checked to make certain we understood what was being taught. As weird as we thought Mr. Buckley was, he made us laugh and look forward to algebra class even on a Friday afternoon.

As I started to feel empowered in a subject I had learned to fear and despise any thoughts of challenging his authority  were long forgotten. The “B” grade he gave me did away with any inferiority complex I had about the left side of my brain being defective. I got an above average grade in algebra!

A Good Mentor Believes That Everyone Can Learn This and Grow

This week at our Water Warriors workout at Cultus Lake our coach Pam reminded me of Mr. Buckley. She’s not a character from Wuthering Heights but she is a special kind of leader.  Her sense of humor provides a conduit for us to take on the challenge of dragonboat paddling and push ourselves way past our comfort zone. Once we get through that barrier of mental and physical resistance we enter the flow.

Go with the Flow

Go with the Flow

This afternoon she sat right down on the thwart with us and demonstrated how to put the “grr” into the dragonboat.  Working her way from the bow to amidships she demonstrated for us how to paddle with more strength and efficiency.

Watching Pam in action reminded me of Mr. Buckley writing a long algebraic equation on the board. He would have us chant it several times and after each chant he would erase a number or variable so that in the end, we had it memorized with nothing on the board left to look at.

He too was “in the boat” taking us eraser stroke by eraser stroke through the learning process. The equations became our friends much like the boat has become our fiery beast. He set high goals for us and this didn’t go past us unnoticed.

Fast forward over forty years where the lessons now are around paddling a dragonboat. Our coach  Pam doesn’t even remotely resemble Mr. Buckley but she approaches her paddlers with the same kind of determined aplomb by showing us how to extract the dragon spirit from a long stretch of fiberglass.

Her mentorship is instrumental in setting free the dragon residing in all of us. Only when we learn how to hold the paddle just so, and guide it parallel to the hull as we stretch forward to reach the clear, undisturbed water in front of where the front paddler’s paddle has left the water,  are we getting closer to crossing through that barrier. We lean forward to parallel our body to the gunwale, and then bring the paddle back again.

As the water travels past our accelerating hull, I hear Pam up forward encouraging one of our experienced crew to direct her ebullient peppiness towards working together with her fellow paddlers. When she compared her to the Energizer Bunny who goes on forever at top speed I fondly remember Mr. Buckley and understand the power of respectful humor. Those nicknames really work!

The love of teaching and sharing acquired knowledge with others transfers empowerment like passing a baton in a relay race.  Successful teacher-mentors are givers and they are persistent. That’s why we love them. And if you can get some humor to season the experience, you end up with a happy group of people outside of their comfort zone. Now that’s magical.


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