How To Change A Student’s Life Forever

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These days we think of students as precious little orchids whose self-esteem must not be bruised by their education. The notion of a “teacher” as an authority figure is out of fashion. Have we got it all wrong?

Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, author Joanne Lipman made a case that an old-fashioned education is still the best education: that teachers who are strict, who are critical, who care about your performance more than your self-esteem, and who believe that “praise makes you weak … while stress makes you strong,” are the best at turning young minds into remarkable adults.

“At their core” she wrote, “is the belief, the faith really, in students’ ability to do better. There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.”

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of having their life changed by a strict and demanding teacher knows that Lipman is on to something. I can quote you chapter and verse on this. During my elementary school years, I had a dance instructor, named Kathy, who had once danced in Baryshnikov’s troupe. She was strict, she was demanding, and she didn’t say you were any good unless you were doing something right. Harsh? Maybe, but as a young kid who wasn’t doing very well in school, I had already learned that adults lie to you to get what they want—that their praise was often insincere and couldn’t be trusted. I trusted Kathy, because I knew she cared about dance too much to be insincere. Whether she said I was doing something right or wrong, I could believe her—and it made me strive to improve.

A little later in life, I had an after-school acting teacher named Anne who kicked me out of class for bad behavior, and wouldn’t let me back in until clear boundaries and expectations were set . Normally this was the sort of brinkmanship to which I didn’t respond well, but in Anne’s case, I bowed my head, humbled, and agreed to play nicely with the rest of the boys and girls. And she kept on me, constantly, to live up to my side of the bargain. And I stood for it. Why? Because she was amazing, and her classes were offering me something—not just something to do but something to become—that I wasn’t finding anywhere else.

All of this serves as evidence that Lipman is correct, absolutely. But it also suggests she’s missing something vital. Because, like many of us, I’ve had amazing teachers who were strict, who were gentle, and who were unpredictable. The issue was never “soft-spoken or loud.” It was something else entirely. So what’s she missing?

Listen to her description of a strict teacher who changed her life:

“I had a teacher once who called his students “idiots” when they screwed up. He was our orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky, and when someone played out of tune, he would stop the entire group to yell, “Who eez deaf in first violins!?” He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.

“Today, he’d be fired. But when he died a few years ago, he was celebrated: Forty years’ worth of former students and colleagues flew back to my New Jersey hometown from every corner of the country, old instruments in tow, to play a concert in his memory. I was among them, toting my long-neglected viola. When the curtain rose on our concert that day, we had formed a symphony orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.”

Inspiring stuff, no doubt, but what stands out to me isn’t just his strictness, but the fact that he clearly had something to offer – that he was a man who loved music and could convey that love, along with the skills necessary to support it, to others.

That is what he had in common with Kathy, and Anne, and Arliss and Richard and all the other truly amazing teachers who shaped my life in ways I can still point to today: it wasn’t that they were all strict or easy, loud or soft. It’s that they loved the subject they worked in, and could instill that love in us.

It’s certainly possible that a larger proportion of people who care passionately about a subject are also likely to be demanding in the teaching of it. Makes sense to me. But it’s not the strictness that gives them something to offer. Quite the contrary: it’s easy for a hack with no passion for learning to be a martinet in the classroom. I’ve had teachers like that too, and loathed them. They tend to kill what they teach.

The capacity to bring a passion to life in a student—whether math, literature, music, or science—is what makes a great teacher. Students, like the child I was, can tell that here is an adult with something to offer, access to a greater world that we too can become part of.

That connection with an adult who has something meaningful to offer is the heart of the pedagogical relationship, much as the connection between therapist and patient is at the heart of the therapeutic relationship. The style of the teaching is far less relevant than the teacher’s passion and expertise in the subject, and the willingness to share.

A teacher, on the other hand, who has no passion or expertise to offer, who only goes through the motions, whatever those motions may be, is a fraud every time.

— Benjamin Wachs

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