By Dr. David Wagner
Part 6 - Communication, Kindness, and Humor
Earlier this month, I led our faculty in a discussion on communication and teaching. At the beginning of the discussion, I shared the two following statements:
- If someone is a good teacher, then they are a good communicator.
- If someone is a good communicator, then they are a good teacher.
These statements can be illustrated by concentric circles, in which the “if” clause is a smaller circle located entirely within the large circle of the “then” clause. As we learn in Geometry class, these two statements are converses, because the “if” and “then” sections are reversed.
In our faculty discussion, we all agreed the first if-then statement is true. Teachers must, a priori, be good communicators. As Gilbert Highet writes, the teacher “has to communicate his knowledge to his pupils. If he fails in this, he has failed as a teacher.” Highet adds that communication skills are as important as content knowledge for a teacher: “But let him be good at communication, and even if he is a mediocre scholar, he can be an excellent teacher.” All teachers must strive to be excellent communicators.
In contrast, the second statement is not necessarily true. Someone who is a good communicator might not be a good teacher. For example, someone who announces train departures at a depot might not have any teaching abilities. This person is simply reading an announcement in a crisp voice over a loudspeaker. These important acts of communication do not involve any teaching whatsoever.
As I mulled over this distinction, I reflected upon my first summer job. When I was in high school and college, I worked as a tour guide at the Thomas A. Edison Birthplace Museum in Milan, Ohio, near my childhood home. For this job, I memorized a great deal of information about the historic home and the life of the famous inventor and shared these facts with tourists. During each tour, I communicated the information clearly with appropriate pacing of details and anecdotes. While there were some opportunities for questions and discussions, I only made a brief connection with the tourists who had stopped by the museum.
In fact, museum work illustrates the difference between communicating and teaching. Working at a museum was a job, but it fell far short of my experience as a teacher over the past 11 years. The missing element were enduring relationships with the pupils and a continuity in the communication. As a teacher, I work with the same students for an entire year, presenting a coherent curriculum in a manner which corresponds to their age, abilities, and personal interests. Further, I have been blessed with opportunities, both as a college instructor and here at Jackson Hole Classical Academy, to teach students for multiple courses over an extended period. As a part of my teaching responsibilities, I communicate information just as I did at the Edison Birthplace Museum; however, my communication is coupled with meaningful long-term connections and a systematic progression in knowledge and understanding.
Over the years, I have found that two essential ingredients for building relationships while teaching are humor and kindness. As a teacher, it is important to be able to laugh with my students about the topics under discussion. Most recently, a student was confused about which #83 we were discussing in math class. I informed the student that we were discussing Exercise #83 in the book, rather than examining the trajectory of Highway 83. Since then, our zoom classes have been enlivened with my directions to discuss Highway 8 or Highway 24. It is our most recent class joke.
Just as humor adds interest and joy to teaching, I have found that simple acts of kindness are essential for effective teaching. My first semester teaching college students, back in Fall 2010, I taught a 90-minute evening class which met twice a week. Often, the students had a 45-minute exam to be followed by a 45-minute lesson. I started bringing in cookies for them to boost their energy for these lessons after exams, and I have been feeding students ever since! At JHCA, it has been a joy for me to bake pies for my students for our annual Pi day celebrations in math class or our 6th grade end-of-year celebration. However, kindness can be shown even more powerfully in simpler ways! It is a delight for me to sit down with students during free time to discuss challenging math problems or a novel which they are reading for pleasure.
Humor and kindness, as illustrated in these simple examples, strengthen the relationships between teachers and pupils and create a warm, positive learning environment. An announcer at an airport doesn’t need to show humor and kindness over the loudspeaker to accomplish his aims, while a teacher’s effectiveness is exponentially augmented with humor and kindness.