What qualifies someone to be a teacher? R.C. Sproul lists “mastery of a subject” as the first requirement. Mastery? Sounds somewhat intimidating, right? Mastery is comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject, but surely this is on a sliding scale. There must be a level of competence of course, but having more mastery of a given subject than those you are preparing to teach must also be taken into account.
For example, I am certainly not an experienced soccer player (I don’t know all of the rules of the game) but I make a decent coach because I understand more about soccer than the 10 and 11-year-old girls I coach. I know how to arrange them as a team, how to motivate their efforts, and how to reward their accomplishments. In other words, I am qualified to teach them how to play soccer because in comparison to them, I have a higher level of mastery.
Now, assign me to coach a professional team of adults and my incompetence will suddenly be glaringly obvious. You get my point.
So there is mastery, but then there must be transmission of that mastery, that knowledge. How will I transmit this knowledge to my students?
Sproul points out that it is safe to make certain assumptions in the classroom (or on the field, as it were):
- That the teacher knows more about the subject than the student
- That the teacher cannot communicate his mastery of the subject all at once. “Knowledge,” he points out, “moves in increments, from the simple to complex.”
Moving on from that, a good teacher helps his students gain understanding. This can be difficult, but it is vital. If your level of mastery over a subject is light years beyond the understanding of those your are preparing to teach, and if you are unwilling (or too prideful) to articulate the information in language your students can understand, then they will learn nothing and you will have accomplished little more that giving your already inflated ego yet another shot in the arm. Hooray for you! – and thank you for wasting everyone else’s time.
Simplifying things can be difficult work. Finding three simpler words to express one larger, more precise word is often time-consuming, but it is absolutely necessary for teachers in settings where the formal education level is lower than average. Profound truth must sometimes be simplified before it can be understood.
In Sproul’s words:
“A great teacher can simplify without distortion. This is the supreme test of understanding. If I truly understand something, I ought to be able to communicate it to others. There is a vast chasm that separates the simple from the simplistic. Jesus, the greatest teacher ever, taught in simple terms. But He was never simplistic. To oversimplify is to distort the truth. The great teacher can express the profound by the simple, without distortion. To do that requires a deep level of understanding. The great teacher imparts understanding, not merely information. To do that the teacher must understand the material being taught.”
- A good teacher knows more about a subject than the student
- A good teacher imparts knowledge in increments, not all at once
- A good teacher imparts knowledge using language his students can comprehend
- A good teacher can express the profound by the simple, without distortion
- A good teacher imparts understanding, not merely information
(Post inspired by Ligonier article “Marks of a Great Teacher” by R.C. Sproul found here.)