What makes a great teacher?

One of the greatest gifts I have received in my life has been the opportunity to experience truly inspiring teaching. The major influence during my childhood years was my violin teacher, Betty Haag, who set the standard for unrelenting dedication to inspiring individuals to reach their highest potential. Since then, I have always been aware when I’ve encountered great mentors, who have that rare combination of expert skills and a willingness to share growth opportunities with others. Two people that I would also classify as great mentors to me during my adult life have been Dr. David H. Sachs, Director of the Transplantation Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, whom I knew throughout my four years at Harvard; and Loyal Wilson, Founder and Managing Director of Primus Venture Partners, who took a chance on me and gave me a huge opportunity in the venture capital industry.

Here are some of my thoughts on the ingredients for a great teacher or mentor (in any subject):

  1. Passionate, infectious enthusiasm for the subject. This is the kind of enthusiasm that leads a teacher to have an appetite for constantly learning more about their own subject, and about the art of teaching it to others. It also carries through in their body language before their students. When great teachers truly love a subject, they will share the joy of their students when they succeed in learning.
  2. Genuine desire to see others experience success in the subject. While some teachers may appear “tough” for the sake of belittling others and reinforcing their own egos, the great teachers are tough because they want their students to put their best effort forward, for the sake of experiencing their own authentic success. Great teachers know what the light is at the “end of the tunnel” of earnest effort, and will not let their students settle for less. Great teachers recognize that while they cannot guarantee a particular level of achievement or outcome for any student, they can constantly guide each student to stay on a path that will make their highest goals possible to achieve.
  3. Experience having applied their knowledge in a relevant setting. I believe what separates great teachers from most others is their ability, through their own life experience, to place their guidance in a relevant context for their students. For violin performance, this means great teachers have had their own experience performing during their lifetimes. When great teachers tell you how to prepare for an event like a public performance, they know all the things you may encounter – nervousness, excitement, distraction, muscles that seemingly take on a life of their own – and therefore, what your practicing must prepare you for. For venture capital, it means a great mentor has been involved not only with hugely successful deals but also the failures, and knows the value of learning from both of these types of experiences.
  4. Belief in the limitlessness of human potential. I believe that great teachers are optimists to a fault. They are persistent motivators of people towards a common goal. They are creators and builders of their students’ innate beliefs about what is possible for themselves. They are guides for their students in creating an environment and mindset which enables them to expand as people. They are ultimately emotional and spiritual leaders of those who surround them.
  5. Intuitive ability to read emotions in others. Great teachers understand their students’ emotional cues and respond to these in their teaching tactics. This is probably why no book, video, or other static medium could ever substitute the unique relationship that develops between a student and a great teacher.
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