Passing knowledge on from one person to another is one of the most difficult challenges we face in communicating. As an instructor, I hate it when someone quotes: “Those who can … do. Those who can’t … teach.” The person quoting this must be going through a tough time with their instructor, and I have the profoundest sympathy for their experience. However, I would like to offer up an alternate axiom for great instructors: “Those who can … do. Those who can do it so well they can explain it to someone, demonstrate it, and help the other person master it … teach.”
This is a key point to understand. When you are teaching a subject, especially a physical skill, being able to perform the skill, and being able to teach the skill are two completely different processes. People can be very competent at doing something, like playing the piano, painting a picture, riding a horse, shooting a basketball, and so on, but they may not be able to teach the skill to someone else. How is that possible? There are several reasons.
The first category of people who are great at doing something, but not good at teaching is because the skill comes naturally to them. If you have a friend who has an amazing jump shot, and you ask them, “How do you do that?”, and their response is, “I don’t know, I just do it,” you will be facing a tough time if you ask them for help. If you know someone who is great at math because they can just “see” the answer, they won’t be much help with your homework since they can’t explain how they got the answer. You need someone as an instructor who is at least aware of the process and understands it thoroughly.
The second category of people who can do something but not teach it are those who have mastered the skill, but never figured out how to explain it in a way that makes sense to anyone else. We horseback riding instructors can be very guilty of this. Every world has its own vocabulary, and the horse world has hundreds of specialized terms. We may have learned how to half-halt down the long side as we do a slight haunches-in and prepare our horse for a beautiful canter transition, but if you don’t know what any of that means, it’s not going to help. Or your instructor could shout at you, “Feel the horse’s shoulder in that transition!” If you don’t know what to feel for, in which shoulder, or why, or how being able to feel what is going on with the horse’s shoulder is going to impact the over-all performance of the horse, then the instructor just wasted their breath.
A good instructor needs to be able to do the following:
- Have a thorough understanding and mastery of the subject. Don’t be fooled … your instructor is still learning (or should be), but at least they need to have mastered the skills they are teaching to you.
- Be able to explain the subject in multiple ways. Repeating the same instructions over and over won’t cut it.
- Be able to figure out what makes sense to you, and use that to customize their instructions to fit what you already understand.
- Be able to explain a skill or task so that you understand how it contributes to the greater whole, and to your progression to more advanced levels.
- If the instructor is teaching a skill, they need to be able to demonstrate the skill. Seeing what you’re trying to do for one minute can cut through ten minutes of verbal descriptions and fiddling around. I know of a few riding instructors who are fantastic teachers, but are now so old they cannot ride due to health reasons. However, these instructors compensate by their decades of experience in teaching, and have so many ways of explaining the concept that they can usually find a way to reach their students.
- The instructor should be able to show you the incorrect ways of performing the skill, as well as the correct ways. It can be really helpful to see a comparison so you can see the impact on the over-all performance.
- The instructor MUST create an atmosphere where it is safe to try AND to make mistakes. We learn as much or more from our mistakes as we do from our successes. If we do not allow ourselves to make a mistake, we seriously handicap our ability to grow.
- The instructor MUST invite questions and feedback. If you are a visual learner and can copy what they do exactly, you need to let them know. If they spend the whole time talking, they are not able to adapt their teaching style to the method that best fits you.
This is what I strive to bring to my students with each lesson. I welcome your insights on the qualities you most appreciate in your favorite teachers. Sharing will help all of us grow as teachers and students.