On What I Look For In A Teacher

In life, a person needs teachers.  I’m not talking about the bastardized version commonly encountered throughout the American education system.  Teaching in America is often merely extolling the agenda of corporatism.  An agenda that is employed to phase out all creativity and independent thinking across 12 years of indoctrination.  It can scarcely even be called education. The subject in these schools isn’t so much Math, or English, or Art, etc, but rather obedience to arbitrary authority.  College is often not much better.  There a teacher is simply a commodity, a means to an end of a profitable way of life.

No, what I’m talking about goes a bit deeper than what America often calls teaching and education.  I mean teacher in a sense that I don’t often hear people use the word.  A teacher to me is someone you could trust to color in a basically blank slate of unknowing with knowledge they have gained.  A teacher to me is someone with enough integrity to trust enough to let them guide you and others to a better understanding.  I think who you allow to become a teacher, who you allow to fill that role, is a hugely important decision.  Because as much as good teachers can help us, bad teachers can wreck us, if the wrong person is allowed to assume the role of teacher.

A friend asked me some questions once exploring similar themes, about who a person should trust to teach them, and what should be looked for in a teacher.  I’d like to expand on my answers here.

What makes it easiest for you to learn from other people?

The respect I have for a person, which corresponds to their credibility and integrity. Its very hard for me to learn from a hypocrite, or a fraud. This has proven a good mechanism of selection. I’ve found it rare that a hypocrite or a fraud will have anything to teach except a catalog of errors not to repeat.

The humility a person possesses. In nearly everything, from music to philosophy to chess to fixing a roof, I’ve found the self-glorying, the braggarts, almost never have anything of value to impart. Its all insecurity with them, the fear that maybe they aren’t quite that good. I’ve never seen a master at anything brag like a slightly intermediate skilled person. At some point skill stands on its own, without egoism, without self-consciousness, because at that point it no longer needs the garnish, the smoke and mirrors.

The degree to which I’m convinced they have something to teach. Some people are narcissistic to the point they falsely think of themselves as teachers. Even when their own knowledge and mastery is vacuous. First I need to be convinced they really know, they really have ascertained something. I need proof a person is as good as they advertise themselves as.

I guess also the teacher’s history. Have other people learned something of value from them? How have they treated others? History most times will repeat.

Who do you learn from the most?

Something underlying everyone I learn from is they seem to be on the same road as me, travelling in a similar direction.  They are people who have merely made it further down the path of a skill that I desire.

For example, I wanted to know how to make a certain genre of music. A few people told me I should just abandon playing like that, because another genre was better, and I should do that instead. I disregarded those people entirely, because they weren’t teaching me anything.  They were on a different road, and trying to goad me into abandoning my road, and getting on theirs. Then I found a man who made that genre of music. Over the years, he had transformed his entire house into a place to record that kind of music. He had dedicated his life to that sort of music. And that’s how I sought and accepted someone to teach me how to do that.

That’s what I mean about people travelling in a similar direction. The first group of people were on another road entirely, and had nothing to teach me, far as what I wanted to learn. This man was somewhere a couple miles down the same road, and could help me get further in the direction I wanted to go.

How do you come to trust another person with the responsibility of teaching you something?

I think its every bit as important to avoid the wrong teachers as to find the right ones. I don’t think the trust of accepting someone as a teacher is something that should be given out easily or whimsically.

Other than that, I think its something that happens gradually, just sort of naturally falls into place. Eventually both teacher and learner prove themselves to each other. Or not, and that sort of relationship doesn’t develop.

What are major barriers to whether or not you feel like you can learn something from them?

Arrogance. Egotism. Glory seeking. Because its so incredibly rare that I see anyone advanced exhibiting these things. Usually these traits mean someone has moved one step beyond mediocrity, but still falls many steps short of being great, or even good enough to teach.

A disparity between words and actions. Talk, as they say, is very cheap. And if a person has a tendency to not live up to their talk, it becomes hard to trust they have much to teach. A person who can’t keep their word is lacking in the most basic discipline. Doesn’t bode well for learning from them.

Heavy handedness and a closed mind. Criticizing others can become a subtle way of praising oneself. I think some teachers break down students, as a backhanded sort of way of making themselves look all the brighter.  As Joesph Addison once said “It is only imperfection that complains of what is imperfect. The more perfect we are the more gentle and quiet we become towards the defects of others.”

A teacher should also always be a learner themselves.  I’m wary of stagnant know it alls.  Too often, that indicates to me someone who has settled into a comfortable rut in their understanding, and wants to go no further.  They then justify this apathy by saying “there’s no further to go” and pretending all they’ve learned so far is all there is in the universe to learn.  


One thought on “On What I Look For In A Teacher

  1. Dear Tom,

    One of the biggest struggles in my life has been with idolatry. Putting particular people on a pedastal (teachers included), my ethnic heritage, my culture, personal accomplishments. As I’ve gotten older this discovery has slowly begun to change me. I’ve come to learn that often these things which I have treated as idols were good things—(and in themselves are) but they were not the best thing. Each of them has failed themselves in the impact they have had on me and others including culture. When they began to fail me I realize that a large part of the problem was mine, not theirs. They never asked for me to assign them such control over my life– I just began to see that I was using them to give me what I wanted. Control. The message I kept missing in all that I’d read many times began to sink in. Water can take a long time to break bedrock. Lots of freezing and thawing.It hurts, too. Woundings can be cleansing. Healing leads to a better restoration in time I’m waiting for that final restoration. It seems like you are too. Word and deed put together in a teacher is really powerful. A teacher that is not an idol that I don’t control. But you know that because I think that is what you are looking for if I read this post with any understanding.

    A new reader

    (As you can tell below, not a fan of Nietsche)

    So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being jof the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,2 being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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