Elementary school kids sitting around teacher in a lesson

In thinking about this month’s theme –“Education” – I couldn’t help but reflect on my own educational experience. And there’s a lot of it from a lot of angles. That is, I was a student for 19 years, a parent of kids who collectively have accumulated 77 years of education themselves. My wife has taught in a grade school for the last 20 years and I myself have served as an adjunct instructor at the University of Cincinnati Law School since 2001. And from all of that exposure, I have concluded there are some characteristics that good teachers inevitably share.

The first? Baked goods. These are critical. And I’m kidding. But my wife, who is a fantastic baker routinely bribes incentivizes her students with cookies and brownies. They seem to work.

But back to my actual thesis. I’m not 100% certain about which of two characteristics is the most critical. It’s either mastery of the subject matter or patience. I consider subject matter mastery critical because there is little worse than a teacher who fakes it. Two problems come immediately to mind. First is the students will tune out a poser. As well they should. But that may not even be as bad as the alternative. If students actually listen to an ill-informed teacher, they likely come away less informed than better informed. So subject matter mastery is a strong candidate for number one.

But it’s hard for patience not to be number one. Imagine a fully informed teacher who has zero patience. How would the student – who would almost certainly be discouraged by the impatient teacher – learn much of anything? Effective teachers realize their students won’t get it immediately. For a host of reasons. The subject matter may be complex, the student may be distracted, and let’s face it, they’re kids. Having done some teaching myself, I can say there is nothing more rewarding – for the teacher – to see the light come in a student’s head. But that typically happens only after a lot of trial and error. So impatient teachers – who miss out on that light bulb moment — penalize themselves as much as their students.

I give up. I can’t out one over other. But let’s add one more characteristic – a sense of humor. I don’t think this is quite as non-negotiable as the first two. And I had some pretty effective teachers who, in all honesty, weren’t laugh a minute types. But I have to say, the teachers that stick in my mind (and the ones who my kids seem to remember) were the ones who could laugh, and more importantly, laugh at themselves. Laughter may be the best medicine, but it’s also a pretty effective mnemonic device.

And as I write this, it occurs to me that whether we draw a salary from a school or university, we are all teachers. As siblings, parents, friends, supervisors or co-workers, we teach all the time. These qualities – knowledge, patience and a sense of humor – surely serve teachers well. But if in fact we are all teachers, they are pretty solid guidelines for all of us.