What Makes a Good Teacher of a Craft?

keatingondeskI’m a sucker for movies about inspirational teachers. Dead Poets Society. Stand and Deliver. Lean on Me (yes, he was a principal, but it’s still educational inspiration). Freedom Writers. Yeah, even Mona Lisa Smile (I know. Sue me).  I get caught up in the prose and the drama and the enlightening of otherwise dead souls (i.e. the kids).

But what makes a good teacher? The late, great Roger Ebert (may he rest in peace) said of Dead Poets Society (for which he gave only 2 stars): “At the end of a great teacher’s course in poetry, the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they really love is the teacher”. (Thanks to Adam Kempenar of Filmspotting for alerting me to that reference). Was Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating a bad teacher?

This is a topic that is of hot discussion in the creative world. Has been for a long while. Particularly in the photography and filmmaking world. Who makes the best teachers of a craft? It’s a hard nut to crack.

Some have become wildly successful in business, while not necessarily having a huge grasp on the science and mechanics.

Some are quintessential experts in the science of the craft, yet have no business sense.

Some are in between.

Some are just good at marketing classes and aren’t really good at the art or the business.

And then there are those who have hit a home run and are both successful in business, and are respected teachers of the craft. (Scott KelbyKevin Kubota and John Goolsby come to mind).

In the nearly eleven years I’ve been a professional, I’ve seen all kinds and I’ve seen and heard all the debates. (One of those such debates remains as of this writing the second most popular blog post on this site).

I feel bad for those who are the students. Watching the artillery fire from both sides. Trying to determine who is right. Whom to follow. Whom to trust. All they want to do is learn how to take good pictures (excuse me, photographs). Or how to be a good videographer (sorry, I mean, filmmaker). How can they know?

For what it’s worth, here’s what I look for in a teacher. They don’t need to necessarily have all of these. But it helps if they do:

  • Results: is there proof in the pudding? Can they walk the walk and talk the talk. Does their work show something worth learning? (Keeping in mind that sometimes what’s worth learning can be a subjective thing).
  • Endorsements from other trusted sources: if Philip Bloom were to vouch for someone as a film instructor, I’d believe him. If Apple gives someone one of their esteemed certifications, that’s a person I’d have confidence learning from. If Zack Arias puts his stamp of approval on somebody, that guy is good as gold.
  • Experience and Longevity: ultimately, the really good teachers are the ones who stand the test of time. They’re the “Mr. Hollands” of the creative world. (Although, that is one teacher movie that really didn’t do that much for me).
  • Ability to communicate: this is huge. I don’t care how much you know, how much experience you have, or how many letters you have after your name. If you don’t have the ability to effectively communicate your knowledge, you’re just a clanging gong. This, for me, is a non-negotiable.

The Dirty Little Secret

Here’s a little secret though. Something that I’m sure will ruffle some feathers. We ALL are qualified to be teachers. (Let that sink in.) Every one of you is qualified to teach something. Why? Because there’s always someone out there who knows less than you. As long as you focus on what you know well, are honest and forthright in expressing what you know, and if you’re good communicating your knowledge, teach to your heart’s content. It’s up to the rest of the world (perhaps using some of the tips I gave above) to determine if what you’re teaching is worth buying.

At the end of Roger Ebert’s review of Dead Poets Society, he quotes Walden from Henry David Thoreau (one of the oft-quoted poets in the movie.). ” . . . instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.” Hmmm?

So good citizens of the interwebs, what say you? What makes a good teacher of the craft?

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