Teaching is an important vocation, not simply to pass on knowledge, but to inspire people to greatness. Teachers have the capacity to change lives, and it’s not just because they put together a good lesson plan. The best teachers are the ones that see those they teach not simply as students, but as people.
Each person has their own unique learning style, personality, and life situation. They each have different interests and passions that inspire them, as well as different hot buttons or issues that cause them to think stressful thoughts. If teachers take a genuine interest in their students not simply in terms of their training but in the context of their whole lives, they can not only help better in the class setting through greater understanding, they can also touch their lives in a more meaningful way.
I covered some of this concept in my blog post How Martial Arts Instructors Can Give More, but I feel like there is more that can be said on this topic. Here are 3 ways teachers can focus more on their students as people:
Understand their physical needs. The body and mind are very much interconnected. What’s going on in our bodies affects how we learn as well as what we are capable of learning when it comes to physical skills. Obviously, if you’re teaching a physical skill, it’s more directly relevant in that you need to be very aware of your student’s fitness level in addition to working around any injuries and physical disadvantages or disabilities they might have. You can also take steps to help your student overcome them. But even if you’re teaching a purely mental subject, being in tune with what your students are going through physically can help. If there is a cold going around, it can explain why your students aren’t as focused in class (or absent). If a student has a physical disability, it can sometimes affect their confidence indirectly. This can affect younger students even more so. See the whole picture and be concerned about the details of that whole.
Learn about their family situation. Make an effort to learn about what is going on in your students’ family lives, learning about changes they may be going through, big or small, positive or negative. You don’t need to pry. These things tend to crop up in small talk. Are they married? Do they have kids? If so, what ages? Try to be in tune when they go through bigger life changes like getting engaged, having a baby, going through a divorce. These things can affect your student’s head space when they’re in class, as well as their attendance. By understanding what they’re going through, you can be more compassionate and offer support in whatever ways you can that are relevant to the situation.
Familiarize yourself with their job/career/calling. What people do for a living is often indicative of how they learn as a student. People with more physical careers, like electricians, carpenters, etc, tend to be tactile learners. While people with more book-oriented careers tend to be visual and/or auditory learners. This is not set in stone, of course, as every person is different. But knowing about people’s jobs/careers goes far beyond this. Is your student in school and/or working toward a change in career? Knowing this means you’ll be prepared for a lack of attendance when exams come around. Is your student having personal issues with people at their work? The frustration they experience at work often follows them into class if they’ve let the stress get to them. Most importantly, get to know what truly inspires your student. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what they do to make money, though it could eventually become that. Be a cheerleader, encouraging your students to follow their hearts and dreams, wherever this may take them. Sometimes, this leads them away from you and your influence in their lives, but if they’re getting to do what they love, it’s worth it. I’ve lost a few great students in this way. One student left earlier this year to go do his training for a year having become accepted to the CN (railway) police. Another moved to the Philippines a couple of years ago to go to med school to become a doctor. Ultimately, I’m happy for them though it is still a little sad to say goodbye.
Whatever efforts you take to focus on your students more as people than as receptacles to be filled with your teachings, you have to do it with an open, sincere heart. You can’t just go through the motions. When you genuinely care, you listen and react in ways that will serve your students. It shouldn’t be something you have to think about or have to force yourself to do in a routine fashion. This is one of the most important things when it comes to being a truly great teacher.
If you’re looking for further inspiration, check out Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul: Stories to Open the Hearts and Rekindle the Spirit of Educators. It’s got some great stories. Do you have any great stories of how a teacher has touched your life or how you’ve touched a life as a teacher? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments.