I love a good teacher

Happy drawing of a pupil who loves their teacherI’m never happier than when I am learning from a good teacher. At school, I always got better grades if I had confidence in the teacher. Now that I am properly middle aged, I still learn better if I trust my teacher. I listen better, I try harder, and I have more fun.

Verbal, vocal and visual

These days most of my teachers work in the health and fitness sector. Many of them are volunteers at the London Central YMCA. They turn up every week to give their followers a good work out.  Personality wise the instructors are all different. But when teaching they are all good in the same way. Each of them has strongly developed verbal, vocal and visual skills. They give clear instructions, they use the tone of their voice to engage the group, and they closely observe what people are doing.

“How is everyone this morning?”

My favourite instructors talk to us as if we are all mates hanging around the water-cooler. One instructor in particular asks us how we are, talks about the weather, her plans for the week-end, a race she is about to run, or maybe her latest injury. She reminds me of Jean Brodie in her prime, telling ‘her girls’ about her holiday in Italy. Generally the instructors don’t expect us to say anything, but it’s always nice to be asked how we are. Exceptionally, one instructor threatens to make us suffer if we don’t talk to him. We like it when he plays Mr Nasty. But he is so obviously not, that we still don’t speak to him.

“You’re doing fantastic!”

The best instructors in my opinion use their voices to guide and support the class. They explain the exercises, they demonstrate, they encourage, they monitor, they keep time. “You should be running at bout 50% of your capacity. Now take it to 60%. You’re half way through now.” Doing this helps individuals to pace themselves, and keeps the group together. “Runners, I want to see you going a bit faster”. The sound of the instructor’s voice is what keeps us going.

In praise of noticing

Feedback based on observation is a powerful tool in any learning activity. As a result of having swimming lessons with David Tatler, I‘ve re-learned something very important. Sports coaches can tell immediately what people need help with, just by watching what they are doing. “Reach with your arm”. “Bend your knees!”. “Your foot should be at five to twelve. Yours is at quarter to twelve”. The truth is that I’m not always aware that I am doing strange things with my body. But the moment my coach tells me what they have seen, I know they are right. I can feel what I am doing is wrong. And so it becomes easier to remember where my foot should be next time. There is nothing so powerful as feedback based on observation.

The power of touch

It seems to me that fitness instructors have a big advantage over trainers like me who try to communicate theory and concepts. I am conscious of the need to communicate in language that people understand. Fitness instructors don’t have to rely on words to get their message across. They can demonstrate. And they can use touch to transmit learning. By placing a hand lightly on an awkwardly raised shoulder, or a wayward limb, an instructor immediately communicates the change they want to see. And having felt what it is like to move or stand in a different way, the learner finds it much easier to replicate the action or posture next time.

“It’s good for my reputation if no-one dies during class”

Health and safety at the gym is paramount. New exercise machines and other instruments of torture proliferate. People need to know how to use them safely. Good teachers pay attention to health and safety. But making light of messing-up can be very helpful. I am not a natural swimmer. I don’t like getting water in my eyes, ears, or in my mouth for that matter. So when David, my swimming coach, says, “So you swallow some water, what of it?”, he helps me to relax. Good teachers put things into perspective.

Good teachers are passionate about their subject, and they take pleasure in sharing their knowledge and skills. I just love a good teacher.


Thanks to all the instructors at the London Central YMCA who inspired this blog.


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