What makes a good teacher?
Updated: Mar 5
by Joanne Chang (Founder of Owl Academy)
Over the span of my 22-year career in education, I have had the privilege of training hundreds of teachers. I do not take this responsibility lightly. Teacher training is something I am extremely passionate about. As an individual teacher, my reach is limited. I have personally guided over 3000 students, but my trainees will go on to influence thousands more. If teachers are groomed to have not just the skills but also the disposition needed to impact children's lives positively, just imagine how much better this world would be.
I have always shared with the leadership team that what truly matters is a teacher's attitude, the teacher's heart. Aptitude is crucial but, with adequate training, it can be developed. Attitude is very difficult to change. It often takes a long time and requires willingness on the part of the teacher. That is why I advise parents to ask prospective teachers questions such as the following:
Why do you teach?
What do you love about teaching?
How do you feel about students with challenging behaviours?
A good teacher is someone who is truly dedicated in helping the young grow up well and happy. A good teacher goes the extra mile as she / he feels a greater sense of purpose in the work of education. A good teacher loves her / his students and is skilled to manage behavioural issues.
My father passed away from liver cancer when I was 20. At that juncture, I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do in adulthood. In Australia, I had flitted around in university from majoring in Pharmacy to Asian Studies (Korean) and Anthropology to Commerce, which I eventually earned a degree in. I went on to do a further 2 degrees in psychology. I was rather lost.
On his deathbed, my father gave me a simple guiding principle. He knew his days were numbered and told me that at that point in life, all we do is look back on all that we've accomplished and evaluate our life's value, not to us but to the ones we leave behind. He reminded me that when we die, we can bring nothing with us to the grave, neither wealth nor possessions. All that remains are the people whose lives we have touched. He urged me to do something meaningful with my life, to make my life worthwhile.
My father fell into a coma in his last days. A man would come and sit by his bed and heave in sobs as he gripped my father's hand tightly. My father had spent his entire career in education, initially as a Mathematics teacher and then as a secondary school principal. This mysterious man had been a student in my father's school in Kuching, Sarawak, where I'm originally from. He was a bona fide gangster and my father was concerned.
My father summoned him to his office and said, "I'm not going to tell you what to do. I'm sure enough adults have tried that. But I am worried that if you do not change your ways, you will either wind up in jail or die young. I cannot promise you that the path of education will guarantee you success in life. However, you will stand a much better chance. Whatever decision you make, I want you to know that I will always be here for you. Come to me if you ever need help."
The man who was a boy then was shocked. He had never received so much respect and genuine care from a figure of authority before. He was so moved that he decided to change for the better. He chose the path of education. He is now a bank officer, happily married with a daughter. He said he owes his life to my father.
During my father's wake, his coffin was placed in our living room for visitors to pay their respect. Something very strange happened! A white Mercedes came screeching to a halt in front of the house and a woman flung the driver's door open, dashed to my father's coffin and broke down wailing. We were all utterly perplexed and turned to look at my mother. In my mind, an uncanny thought appeared out of nowhere: Oh...Could that be why Pa had often come home late???
Once the woman had regained her composure, she came over to my family to apologise for her dramatic entrance. She said she was beside herself with grief. She explained that my father had been her principal. He had caught wind of her decision to stop her schooling at the end of Form 3 (Malaysia's Secondary 3 equivalent) and called her into his office to persuade her to change her mind. He was quite worked up and asked her whether she realised that continuing her education would give her many more opportunities in life. She broke down then too. She told my father that it was her strong desire to continue studying but her family was poor and she had a younger brother whom her parents needed to support. She said her family couldn't afford the school uniforms and textbooks. She said my father looked immediately relieved. He said it was decided. She would continue her studies and not have to worry about those expenses. He paid for them out of his own pocket. I asked my mother if she knew this. She said my father had never mentioned it.
I learnt later that there were many cases like the ones above as letters of gratitude poured in, even to the press! To understand the enormity of my father's selflessness as an educator, it is necessary to understand how immensely frugal he was. I have seen him cut mould off bread and eat the unaffected parts just to save. He rarely bought new clothes for himself. He stinted himself but was generous to others.
I am grateful to my father because he left a legacy that became the best training manual I could have ever wished for as a teacher. I feel incredibly blessed to have a career that gives me a deep sense of purpose, and I hope that on my deathbed, I will be able to look back on my accomplishments and feel satisfied that I have lived a meaningful life, one that is worthwhile.
A Sec 3 student captured the essence of a good teacher in a highly articulate way in an essay that you can read here.