I am blessed to have had incredible teachers in my life--from preschool through graduate school. Since I started teaching this year at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and through my work with New York University (NYU), I now spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a great teacher even greater. I hope someday to have students feel about me the way I feel about Mrs. Mitchell (1st grade), Mrs. Porter (4th grade), Mrs. Morin (9th grade history), Mr. Turner (11th grade history), Mrs. Fields (12th grade AP Biology), Professor Woods (my master's thesis and doctoral dissertation adviser), my colleagues at Columbia and NYU who were once my teachers, and so many more throughout the years.
I may not know what the alchemy is for a great teacher but I do know that there are a few unifying characteristics among the incredible teachers I have had; from Booker Elementary, Horace Mann Junior High, and Sidwell Friends, to Stanford University, Columbia, NYU, and Oxford.
- All my greatest teachers taught me both 'the what' of the course or class and also 'the why' - why it was important to learn to read, to count, to write an essay, to bisect a triangle, to understand the different parts of health system.
- All the teachers whose names I remember and whose lessons helped shape the person I am today respected me and expected respect from me and all the students in my class, my lecture, seminar or cohort. Questions were expected and valued and as I got older and the material more subjective, dissent and disagreement were also welcome and encouraged. There was never a place for disparagement - of the teacher, by the teacher or of a student to another student. There was always too much to discover, to challenge, to learn.
- Class stretched outside the classroom. When I was younger, I could ask a great teacher a question in the hallway or on the playground and know I would get a smile, an encouragement - and a response. As I got older, I could email questions, come in early to school or stay late after a lecture to further explore a point, indulge in a curiosity that was tangential but important to me, or ask for advice.
My great teachers continue to inspire me every day - inside the classroom and outside - and not a day goes by when I don't think of a favorite teacher or two and hope I am making them proud.