A Great Teacher vs. A Great Lesson

Think of your favourite teacher, the person in your life who most connected with you, inspired you and reimagined or enlightened your understanding of the world.

Now imagine a great lesson you’ve learnt. Was it taught by that same great teacher?

I don’t know about you, but for me, and for many of the participants of the last Manner dinner — a Victorian salon come dinner party, that same great teacher wasn’t necessarily the protagonist in delivering a great lesson. In fact, for many of us, we struggled to remember the specific lessons our great teachers taught us; instead recalling the overarching subjects and perspectives we gained under their guidance. The great lessons on the other hand, seemed more often rooted in a lived experience; a situation where we’d been dropped in at the deep end and learned to swim.

Having pulled together a collection of friends, colleagues and new faces for an evening dedicated to delving deep into the worlds of education and technology, I had expected that the conversations would unearth interesting assumptions and biases. How were people going to respond to What is the value of education? Would we broach the inherent inequality in private schooling? Would teachers and technologists shock each other with their assumptions on how things work? Safe to say, I love a stimulating debate and was really eager to participate and listen in to the conversations. What I hadn’t expected was to walk away with this particular conundrum — What is the role of a teacher in a lesson? — rattling around in my head, like an itch I couldn’t scratch.

Designed to get people talking openly and intimately quickly, for every Manner dinner we prescribe a menu of conversation for the dinner — though, in the words of my co-host Sophia, the rules are made to be broken . In this edition, accompanying the first course we introduced the loaded question; Who was your best teacher? Our dinner had tales of relatives who’d help set moral compasses, of teachers who made their students feel like they wanted to be there, and of art teachers who’d connected students to the bigger picture.

The similarity between these inspiring individuals was a very personal connection to their student; the ability to see potential and draw it out, to tune in and be present, to be radically candid and to see that student grow. These are the Mr Miyagi’s to Karate Kid, or the Delores to Rita Watson, they’re not always the most conventional teachers, but for those individual students, they’re exactly what they needed.

In Sister Act II, Rita Watson, played to perfection by Lauren Hill, is a troublesome student with a lot of sass and a huge amount of singing talent, however,she is discouraged from pursuing her dreams by her parents. Cue Delores, played by Whoopi Goldberg, a former Las Vegas singer masquerading as a nun and teacher at the Catholic School Rita attends. After a difficult start to their relationship, steeped in biting classroom banter, Delores hears Rita sing. Delores instantly realises that this young woman has a gift,and crucially, Deloris recognises that Rita loves to sing. The rest of the film sees the Rita wrestle with the tensions of parental expectation versus her own internal passion. However, through this difficult process Rita comes to value Delores as a guiding beacon of truth who helps her achieve her goals. Here’s a nice little scene that shows you the dynamic between the two:

Of all the students in Delores’ class, Rita is at the centre. You experience the film through these two characters and their relationship. Delores is exactly the kind of teacher Rita needed, but perhaps not the right teacher for the rest of the students in the class. Let’s face it, the rest of the kids probably just wanted to pass, and get on with the rest of their lives. So although she wasn’t that great teacher for all of them, she was for Rita. The environment, the classroom, was the place that brought them together, though it could have been anywhere else. So, how do you create those great environments for great teachers?

The script that really epitomises this struggle between a great teacher and a great lesson is the Alan Bennett classic, The History Boys. The play, and subsequent film, follows a group of Oxbridge candidates as they prepare for their entrance examinations to these prestigious institutions. The school, determined to see these students pass with flying colours, enlists the help of a teacher, Irwin, to get the students through the exam. Irwin’s teaching methods are entirely designed to equip the students on how to game the system; to expose the formula of the education system that will get the boys into these universities. In this instance, Irwin is the teacher that consistently delivers good lessons — he has a great ROI; but is he a great teacher?

Opposing Irwin, and all that he stands for, is the character of Hector; the long-standing history teacher who frequently goes off script, believing that his role as a teacher should extend that as defined by any curriculum.

“I count examinations even for Oxford and Cambridge as the enemy of education. Which is not to say that I don’t regard education as the enemy of education, too.” — Hector, The History Boys

As with Keats in Dead Poets Society and Katherine Watson in Mona Lisa Smile, Hector embodies the trope of an inspiring teacher who brazenly defies a broken system of education that struggles to accommodate change for fear of failure. Each of these examples sees their role as a teacher to provide their students with a richness, grounding and approach to the world — whether in knowledge, moral or spiritual — that will better enable them to cope with the world.

“Mr. Hector’s stuff’s not meant for the exam, sir. It’s to make us more rounded human beings.” — Timms, The History Boys

The students in The History Boys grapple with the purpose of education through the conflict between Irwin and Hector. From the school’s perspective, Irwin delivers and Hector, quite simply, does not. His lessons are too intangible in their results. Dominic Cooper, who plays Dakin, puts it well in this interview:

As adults, sat around a dinner table, confronted with the need to recall our great teachers, it was characters like Hector who often sprang to mind. Teachers who had gone beyond their call of duty to try to connect to us as individuals. Teachers who’d ripped up the script. Those who had exposed knowledge and learning as more than just examinations and results to be achieved. And I’m left wondering; how do we reconcile good lessons and great teachers? To what extent are we stifling teachers by having a predefined, measurable curriculum, and how do we ensure our students succeed in school and in life?

I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions, so please do comment below or drop me a tweet. This post is going to be the first of a series exploring great teachers, great lessons, and online learning.

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About Manner

Manner aims to provide a dedicated space to meet with interesting people over fine food and a glass or two; to have great conversation, make connections, share stories and help build local networks. It’s an invitation only event, but if you would like to attend a dinner simply fill out this quick form telling us what you’re interested in talking and sharing.

This article was kindly edited by Natalie Kane
 — thanks, you beautiful human being :-)