The Best Teachers

The best teachers make knowledge accessible. They also fire our desire to learn.

My math love affair ended in 11th grade geometry. The language and dimensional visualization were a blur. My teacher tried to help. But she was “switchin’ to glide” in her career and couldn’t crack the confusion code in my head.

My internal critic screamed, “If geometry was this difficult, calculus would be untenable.”

An equally inept college professor put a full-stop on any interest in science with cypher-like test questions and the worst grade I earned during my university years. The huge class sizes and graduate assistants who knew nothing about how to teach, let alone inspire, became an iron curtain to learning.

I decided I “wasn’t smart enough” to grasp the subjects and moved on.
When I began flying airplanes and imagining the invisible radio frequencies emanating from our station’s broadcast towers, geometry began to make sense. Patient instructor pilots and a dedicated engineer made the subject come alive. What was once an enigma became a passion.

Likewise, it took a wilderness paramedic course and my wife’s cancer diagnosis to open the world of science to my eager mind. By then the formula was revealed and teachers emerged who could make the knowledge accessible and fire my desire to do the work to learn it.

I think about the opposite role models as I write this.

Dr. Roy Davis was the first person to praise my writing. It wasn’t that great, but he got me thinking it might be. Ringo planted the seeds of love for percussion. Jerry Hartweg, Dan Long and Victor Bordo taught the discipline to get good enough to appreciate the rewards of hard work.

A commonality in over one-hundred authors interviews on my “Terry Shepherd” podcasts is the infectious ability they share to transmit their love for the craft with attractive affection. All have been generous with their help and guidance in my stumbling attempts to learn how to tell stories.

Then there are the fire-starters, like my good friend and broadcasting partner, Steve Schram. “What if we could do this..” is his favorite opener, followed often by a wild word picture of some enhancement that translates good to great.

What responsibilities do we own where learning is concerned?

Perhaps it begins with curiosity. Right before Ted Lasso whips Rupert’s ass in a high stakes dart game, he laments a life-long underestimation by people who weren’t curious about the person beneath the surface. Curiosity means looking deeper, turning the prism on a problem to see if a solution is revealed in the rays of a refracted sun.

A second step for me is finding the thrill on the Blueberry Hill of possibility. Steve’s “What if..” question can open vistas of possibilities, one of which might be the ticket to paradise. That requires imagination. Every advance begins when we don’t accept what is and dream of what might be.

Step three is seeking the right teachers. My grandson has expressed a desire to become good at basketball. It’s taken a few false starts, but my son has found a team of coaches who speak Hudson’s language. He’s broken free from his skill plateau and is becoming more confident and sharp with each passing week.

The fourth step is the discipline of lifelong learning. Today, we look for shortcuts to the good grade, do the minimum to gain admission, to get the certificate, perhaps even memorize what’s needed to pass the test, without understanding how it applies to a real-life problem.

PHd. level software engineers from another culture revealed this conundrum when they worked with me. These smart people on paper were obviously very good at learning the code. But they failed miserably in applying it to my vision. Knowledge is more than just plugging ideas into your head. It is the tenacious contemplation of how you can deploy them to make the world better.

The last step is to become that teacher who makes ideas accessible and fires desires. We can do it as parents, as partners, as friends, in any situation where we see suffering.

Effectively applied knowledge leads to higher self esteem. Self esteem leads to independent thinking, making a person less likely to be seduced by media and demagogues who would paint a worldview that supports their personal interests at the expense of others.

Self esteem is also contagious. You can’t have it without wanting to pass it on. And that’s the ultimate gift the best teachers can give.