A Thank You to the Best Teachers I’ve Ever Had

It is clear, I think, from my blog that I enjoy teaching. I like to learn and for whatever reason, I truly enjoy sharing that love for learning with others. Motivating others to want to know more. Giving people the tools to make informed health decisions. My passion for these things definitely grew for my own love for learning.

I think the reason I love learning so much is partially because of my grandmother. I like reading and learning from books (in my own spare time, I pretty much only read non-fiction or biographies – I know, it’s weird), and I think she instilled that in me growing up because she was also an avid reader (though she read a lot of fiction – fiction can still teach you a lot!). She was also a good informal teacher – she taught me lots of things about life and about being a good person (among many other smaller and more measurable lessons like how to bake!).

She exemplified kindness and patience, and was very much a natural teacher. She always encouraged me in school, and helped me where she could (though I do remember her saying my math problems were way out of her league). All these things made me want to inspire others – to know more. Do more. Be more. And to help others do the same.

The others I can credit with my love for learning were mostly formal teachers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lot of not-so-great teachers too. Not to say they weren’t good people or they weren’t experts in their field, but simply they weren’t good teachers. Just because you know a lot about something, doesn’t mean you will necessarily be good at teaching others about it.

Teaching is really an art. It’s probably something you can learn to be better at. I think it’s also a skill some people are just gifted with. I think most of the people who shaped my experience in education (and in life, because not all my great teachers were educators), who made that lasting imprint… they were just natural teachers. My grandmother being the first of many (and I had other great family ‘teachers’ too but that’s a post for another day).

I’m sure I must have had some good teachers in elementary school – or else I feel that I may have lost my interest in school when I moved up to the secondary school level. However, no one in particular stands out. I started remembering my teachers most from middle school forward. I guess because you’re older and more aware. School starts to be about more than just seeing your friends and going outside for recess (although, those are still big factors and when they nix recess in high school it’s about lunch periods and skipping class… I mean, what?).

I had a science teacher in middle school who, I think, planted the seed for my interest in biology and science. I don’t know why they were so memorable – I think a lot of the time a good personality stood out to me in a teacher. A good sense of humour. I always found it easier to learn from someone who could make jokes while teaching – it’s a technique I used myself in my notes to memorize historical time periods when I went to university (but that’s also another story).

High school sort of made me forget about what I was interested in – I won’t lie. It wasn’t really the fault of any teachers – most of them were pretty decent. It was just that there was so much else going on in my life – so many changes, growth, friendships, drama, parties, boys. Just too many distractions. Again though – science stood out to me, biology in particular in grades 11 and 12. Definitely the subject matter. Also the teacher – kind, patient, and just clearly smart. I also appreciated when I connected with or felt supported by a female teacher. Because women rule! But really, it’s nice to see a female thriving in a profession and not becoming mean about it. Sometimes I think women get into a position and, not necessarily by any fault of their own, feel like they have to act tough to keep up with the men. I think this is just sort of a misunderstanding that is ingrained in our society – but I’ve seen it a lot. In teaching, and in managerial or leadership positions, being kind and empathetic can go a long way. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

I think where teachers made the biggest impression on me, within the walls of an educational institution, was university. University and college seem like this big, scary thing before you get there – and actually, that feeling does continue for your first few classes, especially if they are in a very intimidatingly large auditorium. So it’s nice to have a professor (because they aren’t just teachers anymore, now they’re Prof. or Dr., and it’s important to know which one) who seems down to earth and approachable.

I had a lot of incredibly smart professors in my first undergraduate degree – holy cow, does history attract some amazing brains. The most memorable professor I had taught my Elizabethan England course, and an introductory English history course I had taken prior to that. Why did they leave such an impression on me? They knew their stuff. I mean, knew it. No powerpoint for them! They walked into the room and knew dates and names right off the top of their head, for a very long stretch of English history. I could be imagining this but I’m also pretty sure they had a very old copy of an original King James bible. They taught the class like they were telling a story and that made it so much easier to learn a complicated and ever-changing historical time period.

They were also incredibly approachable – though I admit, still intimidating the first time since they were obviously incredibly smart. But just because you’re smart – doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk. You can be really smart, an expert in your field, and still take the time to answer us little people’s questions in a nice voice. This professor did this. It was amazing and made them an excellent professor and teacher.

I had many kind teachers in university who helped support me, answered my questions, and never made me feel like an idiot. This is key – there shouldn’t be “stupid” questions (I mean, for the most part). If you make someone feel bad about not understanding something, you’re not doing teaching right. The whole challenge of teaching is to help the person who is struggling the most understand the material – if you can do that, and not have them feel bad about it (because if you make them feel bad, they likely won’t want to learn from you anyways)… you’re doing something right.

I had another two great professors in my nursing career and I also had a lot of great clinical instructors (and mentors/preceptors), who shaped the way I nursed.

I found nursing was a bigger mix of people who were probably really smart and really good nurses, but not necessarily great teachers. Not a fault of their own – some people feel like they have to go into teaching in nursing. Like it’s a necessary step. It’s often a part of our standards of practice – to be willing to teach other nurses. I think to a certain extent, that should be a goal but it just won’t be a “thing” for everyone. The beauty of nursing is there are so many things you can do with it! Don’t feel boxed in. Explore the opportunities and find what works for you. The other side of the coin is with those who have teaching thrust upon them – like in clinical teaching settings, or the work place. I sympathize with these people – they didn’t want students but in some situations had to have them, so were forced into teaching. That is never a good mix. Not to say you can’t still learn things from people who don’t want to teach you – because you actually can, it’s just not necessarily what you would expect (or often, what you need) to learn.

My favourite nursing professor instilled in me a love for research. I already was interested in research because I studied history and I don’t think anyone goes into history not liking to do research and learn more things. Because there are so many things in history. All of the things! This professor loved research so much and it showed in their teaching. Also, they got checkmarks in the boxes for: kind, approachable, and empathetic.

But I really think the ongoing theme for what I love in a good teacher is actually passion for their subject matter, on top of all these other great qualities.

My second favourite professor taught me in nursing, but wasn’t a nurse. But this professor could have taught every damn course in the program and I feel like I would have learned so much more. They made it easy to absorb information because they made jokes. See, there it is again. They were passionate and super knowledgeable about the subject matter – they used slides, but they didn’t need them. The slides were just there to help us, the students, take notes and make connections, not to support the teaching of the class. That is the proper use of powerpoint slides, really. As a support for the material you are teaching, discussing and explaining in your own words.

This professor was also: approachable, kind, and empathetic. A real person. Intimidating in ways because – knowledge – but also not, because they were down to earth.

I can’t forget the clinical instructors and mentors/preceptors I had. Knowledge is worth so much in nursing, but making the connection between what you learn and class, and how it is applied in the work place is so important as well. Most important, really – you can learn about critical thinking in a class all you want, but it becomes truly valuable when you apply it in a clinical scenario. Instructors and mentors are there to help you apply the skills you learn, and although it’s not formal classroom teaching, it comes with its own challenges (for that exact reason).

Not everyone can be a good mentor – some people like to do things their way, and can’t or do not want to break down the steps for someone else. Some people are not patient – that is okay!! Just patience is a good quality to have if you’re working with students in a placement scenario. I said this before but making someone feel stupid or small, does not cultivate a mindset that is ripe for learning.

My very first clinical instructor in my very first in-hospital placement was a great teacher. They were kind, approachable – yeah, yeah, you know. But most importantly, they were a good nursea good role model. Well-rounded. Did what they needed to do, didn’t take short cuts, talked kindly to patients, and clearly passionately enjoyed what they did. They cheered their students on when they were successful, and supported them anyway they could when they maybe needed some improvement.

I was lucky enough to have many great nursing instructors (actually, I think every single one I had taught me something valuable about nursing). I also have had two outstanding nurse mentors since then. One, my formal preceptor, who was all the great qualities I mentioned above. Watching them work with patients I could see the love they had for their career. Then they would turn to me and go through whatever I needed. They made an effort to teach me where ever possible – sometimes it was direct and purposeful, and other ways it was just natural. Both methods had their value.

Number two was my first mentor in the workplace. I was lucky enough to have looked up to this person for some time before and they truly inspired me to become a nurse. And it was all in the way they spoke to people, and supported them. Nursing is often a lot of teaching, in itself. With patients. So, if they can do this with patients very well, chances are that they can also be a good teacher to a student (not always, but usually someone who is patient with patients can carry this skill over to students, from my experience). And they were.

Beyond clinical skills, from all these instructors and mentors I learned passion. I learned how to speak to people in a way that made them feel how those instructors had made me feel – supported, heard, not alone. Each and every one of them are people I could still turn to for support – whether that be career advice, a Master’s reference, or just to chat with about something important.

All of these people, and so many more, instilled in me a passion for what I do, or what I learn; what I teach others; or, just the art of teaching others in itself. They taught me course material or life lessons; nursing skills or critical thinking; but also so much more. I am forever thankful for the experiences I was given with these wonderful teachers becuase they helped shaped who I am today.