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What makes a great teacher

The teachers we recall fondly are often the ones who saw good in us and changed us for the better

Ask my son who his favourite teacher is and he will reply before you have time to blink: Mr F.

Mr F is not his form teacher. Neither does he teach my son's class a particular subject. In fact, Mr F is not even a full-time member of the school staff.

From what I can gather, he is a retired teacher who is now called upon for relief stints.

This means my son does not get to see him often, though that didn't stop him from producing a handmade card for Mr F ahead of Teachers' Day earlier this month.

It was the first of several cards my nine-year-old prepared for his teachers and the one he took the most pains over.

"Why do you like him so much?" I wanted to know.

"He's nice," came the swift response.

"Okay, but so are most of your teachers. How is he different?"

He took some time to mull over this one.

"He tells us stories about his life," he began. "He also teaches us lessons about life and how to be good."

Then came the crux: "He can be fierce, but he also has nice things to say about us."

The mother of my son's classmate once recounted her encounter with Mr F while picking up her son from school. He greeted the boy and proceeded to tell the mum how respectful he was.

"It was really nice of him to let me know," my friend said.

It’s usually the very good or very bad students who stick in teachers’ minds, just as how we tend to remember only the awesome or awful teachers.The large swathes of in-betweeners often merit no special attention or affection.

Some time later, we ran into Mr F outside. He called my son by name and told me about an honest deed he'd been praised for in school.

Remembering how warm he had made us feel, I suddenly grasped the appeal of Mr F.

It's not just the stories he tells in class, interesting and meaningful as they are. You could argue that as an occasional relief teacher free from the pressure to complete the year's curriculum in time or ensure certain academic standards, he would have more time and leeway to engage with the boys.

But for someone who takes on random classes on an ad hoc basis, it is impressive how he bothers to know the names of the pupils he comes across. Even more commendable is his practice of trying to remember something good about each of them.

By affirming them whenever he has a chance, he sets in motion a virtuous circle of positive behaviours or, at the very least, the desire to be good. And that is what separates the "nice" teachers from our favourite ones.

Those whom we recall with great fondness years later are always the ones who saw good in us and changed us for the better, whether it was in the way we viewed ourselves, tackled a subject or approached life in general.

They don't necessarily have to go beyond the call of duty - they just have to show that they really care.

Mrs Ooi, my form teacher for three years in upper primary, tops my list of favourites. She looked beyond our grades and treated all of us like her children. She would ask about things beyond homework and knew, for example, how many siblings we each had.

Even the rascals who used to rouse her ire would return without fail to visit her years after we left school. She went on to attend several of our weddings, including mine, and still keeps in touch with a group of us.

But the teacher who made the strongest impact on me likely has no memory of me.

I was a mousy, average student struggling with the doubling of workload in Secondary 1 when my form teacher dropped a bombshell on me. Mrs Chan was assigning posts in the class committee and named me the treasurer.

I panicked. Besides having to ensure that the accounts were in order, I also had the unpleasant task of collecting money from reluctant classmates regularly for the printing of notes and such.

For someone painfully shy whose mission in life was to sail under the radar, I saw the job as a nightmare.

I begged my mum to tell Mrs Chan to let me off the hook. She told me to sort it out myself. So I mustered the courage to enter the staff room one afternoon with a pounding heart and sweaty palms.

I told Mrs Chan I couldn't do it and to please pick someone else.

She looked up at me briefly and said firmly, but kindly: "No, I think you can do it."

Then she turned back to her marking, leaving me on the verge of tears.

At a meet-the-parents session months later, she told my mum the move was deliberate. She could see that I was responsible and meticulous but needed to come out of my shell, so she thought the post was a good match for me.

She was right, of course. I went on to develop more confidence (she trusted me with money!), a basic but clear bookkeeping system and a thicker hide, essential for handling friends who saw me as a social pariah whenever it came time to collect class funds.

From then on, whenever I was handed responsibilities that I felt were beyond me, I would remember Mrs Chan and resolve to at least give things a shot.

For a middling student like myself, her accurate reading of me was particularly gratifying.

It's usually the very good or very bad students who stick in teachers' minds, just as how we tend to remember only the awesome or awful teachers. The large swathes of in-betweeners often merit no special attention or affection.

I learnt to believe in myself because Mrs Chan first believed in me. She saw something in me that I didn't think I had. She didn't just make me feel good about myself, she made me want to do better.

American author William Arthur Ward summed it up well: "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires."

I pray that Mr F is just one of several great teachers my son will cross paths with in his long academic road ahead.

• Tee Hun Ching, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'What makes a great teacher'. Print Edition | Subscribe