Preface: This essay took a few interesting turns. It was first entitled “10 things that make you a bad teacher”. I sent it to a few friends for feedback, one friend said “it’s a bit too harsh, it suffers from some of the things it criticizes”. Another said: “I wonder if it’s better to flip it around and focus on what makes a great teacher”. The first draft was written with resentment, from a place of hurt. Like so many people, I suffered from studying with some… let’s say damaged teachers. I was venting my anger and frustration to my potential readers. It felt right to lessen its sharpness, even though some friends actually enjoyed the harshness with which I put down the damaged/damaging teachers. But, a higher part of me knew that I would only be fueling more anger and more separateness, which is the root of the problem. So, instead of going with “10 things that make you a bad teacher” focusing on those 4 or 5 damaged teachers that I’ve had in my life, I chose to follow my intuition, coupled with my friends’ feelings, and to go with “9 signs of good teachers”. This made me think of at least 20 good teachers whom I’ve encountered! That’s something, isn’t it?
Introduction: Here’s an incomplete statement: “Teaching is the most noble of professions”. Well, never is any profession more noble than another, but it is how a person carries out their profession that make it noble or not. We know that is the case because we can find unethical doctors, and merciful executioners. Many times, I’ve heard from someone how they used to play an instrument, but ended up quitting because of their teacher. And, many times, I've heard how someone developed a passion for music (or any other discipline) because of their teacher's approach. We have both kinds of teachers out there, and it’s important to distinguish them.
1. Good teachers listen to their students’ needs, and take into consideration their own capabilities.
Good teachers recognize that they themselves have a lot to learn from their students. A lot of the time, students will indirectly tell their teachers what they need from them. If teachers can’t provide that, they should point the students to someone who can, or at least admit that they are unsure of how they can help. Some teachers made the assumption that they cannot say "I don't know" to their students. As if teachers are supposed to be some sort of all-knowing oracles. I say good teachers must learn to be humble, which will teach their students, by example, to do the same. It is when we admit that we don't know that we are ready to learn.
2. They never claim ownership of their students.
Sometimes, teachers can become possessive. They might
see the teacher/student relationship as a hierarchy, similar to master/slave
rather than professional/apprentice. In a master/slave relationship, the master
is just as much dependent on the slave as the slave is on the master; without
one, the other cannot be. Which makes the master a slave. That's not a healthy dynamic to have in education. Very philosophical, I
know, but it is important to constantly remind ourselves that those study with us, are not ours.
I like teachers who approach it from this perspective: “A good teacher is one who renders himself progressively unnecessary” Good teachers would like to see their students be independent of them, they would like to see them independent of anything. What's that saying? “Knowledge sets us free”?
3. They give a lot of credit to their students for the hard work and effort they put in.
I studied with a number of different teachers over the years. Some here in Lebanon, some in Europe, and some in The United States. Most lessons
would last an hour, and the regular ones would be once per week. For a period
of 4 or 5 years, I practiced 7 to 9 hours a day. That’s 49 hours a week. So,
for every hour with my teacher(s), there would be 49 hours of practice on my
own. No doubt that a lot of that practice was given more direction and intent
because of my teachers’ guidance, but what I’m saying here is that students
generally do a lot more work than teachers in the process of learning.
4. They avoid causing division in the music scene (or any other scene) by refraining from gossiping about or badmouthing anybody.
I get it. Sometimes, somebody rubs us the wrong way, they might offend us, and in order to redeem and protect ourselves, we might talk badly about them to our students or colleagues so that the latter will turn against our “enemies” and we gain strength in numbers. That’s human nature. But, there’s a better way to do things. Sure, conflicts are not always avoidable and often both parties involved are not mature enough to skill fully resolve issues. But the noble action would be to contain the damage and not allow fire to spread. Good teachers keep their personal problems to themselves, they don’t recruit students to fight their battles.
5. They don’t create an entourage of people who worship them in order to inflate their self-worth.
Students look for a mentor, a father/mother figure, a guide. It’s easy to take advantage of their sponge-like receptive minds. If we ever feel underachieved, and we are all exposed to such feelings, it is not right to nourish our ego through conditioning our students to look at us as their superiors.
6. They never make the student feel bad about his/her playing nor that they will never be as good they are.
Mark Twain said: “Truly great people make you feel that you, too, can be great!” Teachers who are very good at what they do should be able grow a feeling of confidence and capability in their students. They should be able to show the students their potential. Of course, if a student is not working hard enough, it is the teacher’s role to inspire them to dig in. Maybe the easiest way to do that is by making them feel bad about their playing, (I really hated Whiplash for propagating and justifying that idea in a romantic way) but the easiest way is not always the healthiest way. Sometimes, if a student is not working as they should be, it’s worth taking them aside and trying to find out why and how you can help as a teacher. Sometimes, there’s trouble at home. Sometimes, they just don’t feel proficient enough. But they look up to teachers, and teachers have to use that fact as a force that inspires students rather than puts them down.
I was often made to feel bad about my playing by two of my closest
teachers, and yes I practiced very hard to do something about it. But, what did I do in that
process? I practiced out of anger and hate for myself, and I was doing all that
for other people’s approval! That’s dangerous… I hope you can see why, especially in the
But, in all fairness, I do have the confidence to write blogs like these, to compose music, to play with the best of musicians, to always expand my potential because of teachers who made me feel like I easily could do all these things.
7. Great teachers understand the basic principle of teaching:
Which is to unselfishly pass all the information they know in order to create continuity for themselves, and between different generations. It’s worth paying attention to the fact that a lot of teachers feel like students are their children, they call them “my kids” sometimes. And students often look up to their teachers as they do to their parents. And, the relationship between parents and children is one of continuity. Our parents do everything they can to provide for us when we are in need because they know they only have so much to live, and that we will continue their legacy.
8. They never claim to be always right, and they never point the finger at those who disagree with them calling them “incompetent”.
I actually had a teacher say this to me, in all seriousness, during a discussion where I didn’t agree with him: “I’m always right, even if I’m wrong, I’m right. You don’t know right from wrong yet!” That’s not something a good teacher would do. Wasn’t the Buddha a great teacher? He said something like “never believe anything I say unless you can prove it for yourself”, that doesn’t mean that we should not believe in anything if it doesn’t match our preconceptions, but rather that we should evaluate a teaching based on the effect it has on our lives.
9. They never feel good about being mean or harsh on their students.
We all have bad days. We all can accumulate a lot of stress in our heads, so sometimes we tend to be mean to those we care about. Or even sometimes, the situation doesn’t allow us to sugar-coat some otherwise harsh remarks. The thing is, good teachers don’t hold on to their position, they have the humility to apologize and to explain themselves in order to give back the student any self-esteem lost in the process.
Post Script, A note on “damaged” teachers:
One of the most powerful works of art in human history is Pinkfloyd's "The Wall", written by Roger Waters. The wall, is a psychological defense mechanism that humans put up as a shield after traumatic experience to protect themselves from being hurt and mistreated again and again. The hit track "Another brick in the wall" has a prelude, an introduction entitled "The happiest days of our lives", here are the words from the first:
When we grew up and went to school
There were certain teachers who would
Hurt the children in any way they could
By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
And exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids
But in the town, it was well known
When they got home at night, their fat and
Psychopathic wives would thrash them
Within inches of their lives.
I know, in my heart of hearts, that people who are doing a bad job at teaching, or parenting, or anything really are suffering and are facing insurmountable difficulties. And it just so happens that it is human nature to resort to violence when life gets rough on us... But, what makes us noble creatures is the fact that we overcome our impulse to hurt, even though it is our nature and something inside is driving us to it. It is so difficult to overcome nature, but it is necessary. It is human nature to kill, rape, steal, and plunder. But we must not allow ourselves to do these things, because "Man is something that shall be overcome". That is what Nietzche said must be done in order to become the superman, the better version of man.
I urge you to take the time to observe yourself, love yourself, to deal with your traumas and be aware of how they can get you to cause suffering, and to clean up the bad taste in your mouth before you go out into the world and lead young flexible minds with a toxic world-view. It is the last thing the world needs right now.
Thank you if you've made it this far in the essay, much love.
Special thanks to Sami Moukaddem, who has gone through hell, but still manages to keep a heart of gold. To J Kyle Gregory, an incredible trumpet player, and a teacher whom I had the privilege to observe in some Jazz camps… the guy made kids feel like super heroes. To Reine Zahreddine for always being strongly supportive of everything I try to do, that’s priceless. To Farah Aridi for always taking the time to help me with my work even though she has a PhD to complete.