What Makes a Great Teacher?

Blackboard in classroom (c) http://www.sxc.hu/profile/hisks

What makes a good teacher?

I had an interesting day yesterday. I am in the midst of getting my driver’s licence and went to the mandatory Kurikulum Pendidikan Pemandu (KPP) course. It was a 6-hour course conducted by 2 different instructors, 1 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon.

What amused me was the way the intructors conduct themselves. Both of them, during their respective sessions, started with giving us their background (where they studied, how long, how many students they have taught) and explained to us their teaching philosophies.

While the two are different in mannerism, they had similar tactic: they told us they are great teachers and many of their students have passed by listening to them, and those who failed were the ones who didn’t.

Now, throughout the sessions (I will not single out any particular instructors from this point, suffice to say both of them repeated mostly the same mantra, only with different words) these messages were drummed into our head continuously:

  1. Most students will fail the theory exam conducted by JPJ because they do not listen or follow the teachers’ methods.
  2. One instructor predicted that 80% in our class will fail, the other said maybe 1 person has about an 85% chance of passing, the rest would fail. One even said that our class was the worst that he has taught in 8 years (claiming that he has taught over 300,000 students and then went on for 30mins to list his job scope, his credentials and other courses that he teaches like defensive driving etc).
  3. Having a high IQ or being a genius, or having a good job does not guarantee that you will pass the exam. Both then went on to give various examples of doctors, lecturers, VIPs etc who allegedly failed the theory exam multiple times because (and I infer) these people were “too proud” to accept the teachers’ teachings. I also infer this to mean that these people either didn’t attend the course or complete it, or they were not paying attention or said something that (in their opinion) belittles the instructors’ abilities.

At different times, I was asked to answer questions, which was not a big deal – I always get asked to answer questions even way back in my primary school days – and I answered them, or guessed the answers because obviously I had not studied any of the materials. I think no one in the course did, it was our first (and only) class and we got the materials only moments after the class convened.

One question was if I had to go to work from Location A to KLCC, presuming I have to be there by 8,30am, what time would I leave the house? This was to test our “planning the drive” skills. We were given 20 seconds to mull the answer.

My first instinct was to figure out where was the nearest LRT station. Having worked in a bank along Jalan Ampang a few years ago, I know fully well the traffic situation in that part of town. I also know how crowded and crazy the LRT stations can be in the morning. I had commuted with an old friend who happened (at that time) to work in KLCC and we met at the LRT Kelana Jaya station at 7am every day so that he could get a parking spot and we could brave the early morning office-worker rush.

If I go this route, I will need to leave Location A by 6.45am in order to take the 7.15am LRT (I factored in having to park and then queue to get a spot in the coaches). This will allow me to reach KLCC by 8.00am, just enough time for a cup of coffee and muffins at Starbucks before I start the day.

Then, since we were at a driving course after all, I figured out how to get there by driving. I posited that it would take me about 30-35mins to reach Banday Sunway from Location A via Subang Airport cutting across the Federal Highway into  Jalan Kewajipan, and then I should take the New Pantai Expressway (NPE) followed by SMART Tunnel, exit at Jalan Tun Razak then turn into Jalan Ampang and then boom, KLCC. It would take less than an hour but I added 15 mins to be safe so I decided that the comfortable time to leave home would be 7.15am.

This is where the interesting part began.

The instructor went around the room asking everyone when they would leave. Then he asked how many of us thought of the routes we would take when we did the estimation. I raised my hand, and of course, I was asked to explain.

This was how I explained it:

“I will leave at 7.15am by getting to Bandar Sunway and then taking the NPE…”

…and before I could say another word he cut me off. He asked me whether I’d fly to Bandar Sunway? (big laughs from the class) I asked him what he meant? He repeated, how do you get to Bandar Sunway, do you fly? (even bigger laughs from the class)

I said I don’t understand the question. You asked me which route I would take.

Then he launched into a 7min (I timed it) diatribe about how I should start by turning on the engine, start driving, turn right at the main road, take left at the intersection heading towards Subang Airport terminal…bla bla bla… Lebuhraya Mahameru… bla bla bla… Sime Darby building, Jalan Sultan Ismail…bla bla bla… KLCC. Then he described an alternative route using Dataran Merdeka or Jalan Edinburgh.

Oh, I see. He wants me to give detailed instructions of the drive. Why didn’t he say so?

But, after his long description of the two routes, I still didn’t get to explain mine and how I could get to KLCC from Location A. He just went on with a different topic.

In another instance, a photo of a busy intersection was shown and we were asked to name the line (for the record, the name is “garisan berhenti” or the stop line). It’s just that we were not asked to name the line, we were asked what should we do when we get to this line. Of course I was pointed out. He said, I am curious to know what your answer would be. So I said the line means we have to stop and allow vehicles to our right to pass as it is their right of way. That’s what I would do if I come to such junctions.

Wrong, he said, the line is called garisan berhenti.

But that wasn’t the question – he asked me what I would do, he didn’t ask me to name the line. I know I wrinkled my forehead and he was looking directly at me when I did that.

Then he went on again with the bit about how so many smart people fail the theory exam because they were arrogant know-it-alls (not verbatim, but repeating the story about the Datuk who owns 15 companies, memorizes the entire workbook and still fails the exam 7 times kinda makes  the point. We got the hint loud and clear), or maybe because “They don’t understand Bahasa Malaysia very well” – that was  a jab made especially for me, and no sir, for the record I actually understand and can speak Bahasa Malaysia very well, my BM is as good as any politicians worth his salt, thanks. I just don’t trump it out often in my daily life.

I actually chuckled a little bit to myself after that.

During the ride home after the class was over, I thought to myself:

  1. Why would a teacher, a self-proclaimed GREAT teacher at that, tell his class that most of them will fail and that this will not be his fault. (Verbatim:  Kalau awak fail, itu maknanya awak tak ikut and tak dengar cakap saya dan apa yang saya ajar). Why are the teachers underestimating us?  They didn’t know us, who we are or what we are capable of. For all I know everyone in the class could pass with 100% score. Who’s to say we won’t?
  2. Since everyone was there for the first time, and everyone was assumed to have zero knowledge about driving and its intricacies, when a student can’t answer or give the wrong ones, does that vindicate the teachers’ claim that these students are at fault for not paying attention?
  3. Does talking down to your students – be it using reverse psychology or negative reinforcement – work? Everyone has to be 17 years old and above to take the class, and as far as I could tell, none of them were being boastful or smart-alecky. Was there a need to talk to us like we were being recalcitrant and needed disciplining?

Wouldn’t a great teacher take a class with a high percentage of possible failures, and instead of telling them repeatedly that they would fail and it’s not his fault, roll-up his sleeves, get his hands dirty and help to do the heavy lifting so that the class could understand what was taught and be able to do better in the exam?

I have nothing against the instructors. I was there to learn and that was what I did. But if this was a continuous course and I had to go for multiple classes, I would take my business and learn elsewhere. Not because I am lembik or a sissy and can’t handle some tough love, but because I don’t like being around negative, oppressive people. That’s not who I am.

What was it again that Richard Feynman’s father said to him?

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. ~ from Surely You Are Joking…

That’s the kind of teachers that I want to learn from.

Unfortunately, looks like the spray and pray culture is very much alive and well in my beautiful Malaysia.

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