I love teaching.
That moment when the student’s eyes light up as the ideas fall into place? I live for it. Or when they are glowing with the new realisation of what is now within their grasp? Sign me up. It’s what I first fell in love with when I first discovered my love for it while teaching my brother maths when he was about to enter uni. And it’s what has kept me finding ways to teach everywhere I’ve gone and in every job I’ve done, from medical students and junior doctors to volunteer mentorship with young people. It’s why I love being a Write of Passage mentor.
I love it all because it’s by teaching that we learn to be human.
We need the help of others to be human. Our lives are bookmarked by dependence: we begin as helpless babies and end, if we’re lucky to live that long, as elders requiring some degree of support. And in between, we’re shaped by relationships, for good and ill. Being human, ultimately, is a social venture, and our personalities become fully whole in community—including the teachers who shape us.
And that’s because teaching is, at its highest, is more than about information. It’s about transformation. My best teachers didn’t simply instil knowledge, they imparted vision: they changed how I saw the world—and ultimately myself. You could say they were showing, not just telling. They taught me not just what to think, but how.
But transformation isn’t really something someone does to you, or even something you do for yourself. It’s something that happens to you. You don’t engineer it, you simply make space for it. And the best teachers are expert at making that space.
They do that in a variety of ways.
- They use analogies to help make unseen connections visible.
- They use socratic questioning to nudge you deeper than you think you can go.
- They pay attention to your strengths and weaknesses so they can help you make the most of the former and avoid getting tripped by the latter.
- They keep things fun to stop you taking yourself too seriously so you can properly take the subject at hand seriously.
But how do these best of teachers themselves come about?
I think they become that way from having struggled: either themselves or with students. That’s why people who are just a bit ahead of us are often better teachers than those far ahead who actually know more: because what we need isn’t the person with the most knowledge, but the one able to most impart the knowledge they need—and make space for the transformation they desire. And the teacher who has struggled is able to not just teach, but also recognise where the student is stuck, whether because they’ve been there before or they’ve been with students as they struggled through it.
CS Lewis explains this in the forward to his commentary on the Psalms:
The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, and by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.
While working on this essay, I talked about it with Michele Serro, my fellow student from Write of Passage, and she shared a story of an opera teacher she knew who was world famous but a “horrendous teacher”: she knew how to sing but had forgotten how to get there. In Michele’s words, “She could take someone who was good and make them great, but if someone didn’t know how to sing, she couldn’t make them good.” Like CS Lewis’ expert, she met singing so long ago that she’d forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
We’ve all known people like that, haven’t we? Really good teachers who somehow struggled to transfer their wealth of knowledge to more than a few people. Adults, including parents, often fall into this trap too, forgetting what it was like to be young.
So if you’re a teacher, or parent, and you’re struggling, I want to remind you, as I remind myself daily: your learning struggles—including learning how to be a better teacher—are precisely your most valuable equipment for teaching. The best teachers remember what it’s like to be a student, a beginner. Good teachers, love their subject, but the best ones also love their students.So they stay close to them, sit in their struggles with them, and ponder how to help them overcome their difficulties.
That’s why teaching, at its best, is an act of love. Great teachers love you too much to leave you as you are, to leave you without the knowledge of the thing they teach, without the transformation that knowledge can kindle in another soul.
And so they teach. That’s the kind of teacher I want to be.