'Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much
arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but
knowledge in the making.' --John Milton
The epigram above goes a long way in providing an answer to this
oft-repeated question. Of course, we must make a distinction between
Aristotle instructing passionate disciples on the definition of happiness
and a humble foreign language teacher attempting to familiarize a horde
of boisterous adolescents to the intricacies of the English interrogative
sentence. Whether adolescents back in the 4th century BC were radically
different in demeanor to today's is for the anthropologists and historians
to decide; in any case, Aristotle taught at his own establishment, the
Lyceum, which was populated with erudite and eager scholars, many of whom
had traveled great distances to study there. Few would deny that a teacher
must teach according to his pupils. Professor Stephen Hawking would explain
the concept of black holes to his Ph.D. student rather differently than
he would to an inquiring GCSE student. Nevertheless, there are a number
of universal features that bind all first-rate teachers. The astute but
weary teacher would point to the first clause of the epigram and dismiss it
as quixotic. The even more astute good teacher would then explain where
the fallacy lay: the desire to learn is not a precondition to successful
teaching, but a consequence. The majority of students do not initially
enter the classroom with a genuine desire to, say, describe a picture
in English. The teacher must instill it in them. This is the most
important task he faces and this is largely achieved by his own enthusiasm.
The teacher must be the most enthusiastic person in the room. Enthusiasm
is eerily contagious.
Waiting for my first lecture on "Advanced Word Morphology" last year, I
feared the worst. The lecturer, a plump and immaculately dressed man,
stormed into the room and, from that moment on, never lost our attention.
To think that someone could be so excited about the irregular plurals
in English was a little odd at first, but it nevertheless made us listen
to find out what could induce such animated grimaces and gesticulations.
In the following week, the attendance doubled. The good teacher then, has
a veritable passion for what he teaches or, less romantic but equally
effective, can pretend to be. To assume that a human being can be
veritably fascinated by the...