What makes a good teacher?
And How to Make High School Students Give a Shit
Mr Weigall was my Year 10 English teacher. I don’t remember much of what he looked like, other than that he was a tall man with a receding hairline, a booming voice and an immense smile. Although his physical characteristics have faded from my memory, I’ve never forgotten the type of teacher he was (and presumably still is), and the impact his teaching had on me as an impressionable, if not misguided, teenager.
I was a rebellious student whose insecurity often manifested in misdirected anti-authoritarianism. I was highly sociable, extroverted, intelligent, influential to my peers, and unafraid of crossing boundaries or breaking rules. I was, in other words, a shit of a student.
By the time I’d reached Year 10, I was probably known among the faculty; I was constantly in trouble but my academic record was above average. I was a smart kid who was bored, restless and frustrated. Going in, Mr Weigall must have known, or at least, heard about my track record but that didn’t phase him. Over the course of the year, he brought out the very best in me, making it clear to me (in no uncertain terms) that I could do so much more with my intelligence than constantly disrupt the class and needlessly challenge everything any teacher said.
I went into Year 11 a changed student, and how much that was a function of my own naturally developing maturity and the very different learning environment of senior secondary school, or how much Mr Weigall influenced that change, I’m not sure. Regardless, I’m sure that he played some part in the transformation as he still resonates with me to this day. So how did he do it? I’ve distilled Mr Weigall’s skill into three golden rules.
1. Be interesting
We tend to forget how much information students are absorbing and synthesising every day. Imagine trying to learn about eight or so completely different subjects from eight or so completely different teachers in disjointed one hour blocks each day with about a million distractions around you. And then we wonder why teenage students have difficulty giving a shit about whatever it is we’re standing in front of them and talking about.
As well as being endlessly patient, caring and kind, Mr Weigall was enthusiastic and experimental in his lessons, delivering content in new and unexpected ways. From outdoor lessons to dress-ups to hilarious anecdotes, Mr Weigall had non-conventional teaching down to an art.
He was interesting. Like a breath of fresh air, Mr Weigall’s class was an oasis in the suffocating tedium of high school monotony.
2. Be interested
Mr Weigall was interesting, but more importantly, he was interested. He was curious about his students and responsive to them. He asked us about our lives, our ideas, our insights, what we believed in, what we thought we were good at. I didn’t realise it then, but he was probably using all of this information to develop strong and trusting relationships with us, and to develop lessons that mattered to us, that seemed relevant to us, that made us sit up and take notice.
3. Give them the benefit of the doubt
Being interesting and interested are qualities that any good teacher can (and should) have and they’re qualities that I’m sure many teachers possess. So what made Mr Weigall different? In my mind, at least, he was the first teacher who truly and genuinely gave me the benefit of the doubt. For the first time, I felt like a teacher was on my side, that my trouble-making wasn’t some foregone conclusion and that my misbehaviour wasn’t expected. He wasn’t an authority figure pressing his rules down on me; he was a leader trying to instill in me the values of leadership, teamwork and diligence. I felt a keen sense of shame and disappointment if I ever let him down because I knew he believed in me and believed that I could do better.
So Mr Weigall, if you’re out there, thank you.
It’s a sweet irony, or at least karmic intervention, that I am now studying to be an English teacher, just like you. And if you have taught me anything, it’s that a little faith goes a long way.