What’s the ‘magic bullet’ that turns an ordinary teacher into an exceptional one? Shahpur Jamall explores what constitutes the X factor in teaching

Over the years I have been fortunate to have had many exceptional teachers in my life. I still remember these exceptional individuals. The first teacher who fits into this category was my Sixth Grade teacher, Mr. Sinnote. Mrs. Tankersly, my Tenth Grade Geometry teacher also stands out vividly through thirty years of blurred memories. Stanley Wolpert who taught me History in college was someone who made a big impact on my life. In my professional and personal life, I have the privilege of having a teacher and mentor in Etsko Schuitema who has helped me to grow as a human being like no one else has.

At each stage the medium of instruction was different. They were teachers of English, Geometry, History and Leadership and their methods and styles had nothing in common with each other.  Yet there was a common element to these relationships. Teaching always happens in relationships and that enabled my growth and development. I would do anything for these individuals. I always wanted to do my best and be my best for them. That’s what great teachers do; they bring out the best in people.

As a school Principal I have had to evaluate a very large number of teachers. I have found the same link, this same characteristic in all the wonderful teachers I have had the privilege of working with.  I have also found the same outcome in their classrooms; students respect them and willingly work for these teachers.

The’magic bullet’
“Alright” I hear you saying, “Enough already”, what is this magic bullet, this essential ingredient that is the difference between excellence and mediocrity? Actually it’s very simple and we all relate to it instinctively. All these teachers I mentioned had one thing in common – they all cared about me! Teaching was not just a “job” for them. They did not come to work every day only to take home a paycheck.  It wasn’t that they loved their subject so much that they had to “impart” it to someone. They all genuinely cared about me and wanted to bring out the best in me.

You see, when we as individuals feel someone’s intention is to get something from us, whether its obedience, respect or even good grades, we block them out. But when someone’s intention is to give you something unconditionally, when they want what’s best for you regardless of what they will get out of it, you will do anything for that person.

The race for grades
In today’s schools, we want all our students to get excellent grades. Teacher and schools are judged on those grades. We have these very talented “name brand” teachers who are known for their ‘A’s. In fact before the tutors take on a student they screen the student to make sure he can get them that ‘A’. After examinations you hear statements from tutors such as, “You know how many ‘A’s I got in these last exams?”  So the student, who this relationship is all about, has become a means to an end.  Teachers and schools use students to enhance their reputations.

No one likes being used for someone else’s purpose and consequently students rebel. Most of the teenage issues of defiance we have in schools, stem from this inversion of means and ends. Instead of using the subject, the curriculum and even the exam to bring out the best in children, we are using children to glorify ourselves or line our own pockets.

I have the privilege of working with one particularly gentle and soft spoken teacher who never, (well almost never, she works with children after all), has to raise her voice, or threaten or scold her students. Yet her students are always respectful and go the extra mile for her. The magic bullet?  She wants them to succeed and excel academically, but they also know that she will still love them even if they don’t.

Shahpur Jamall is a founding member and the academic director of Bay View Academy, a  private school located in Karachi, Pakistan.  He serves as the Principal at Bay View Academy, as well as Southshore – a school for A level studies. Shahpur holds a Masters Degree in Education from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).