How Ten-Year-Old Me Helped Me Uncover 7 Secrets to Being a Great Teacher

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secrets to being a great teacher

Amanda from Teachercate Team personally reflects on where her passion for learning was born, and the powerful influence every teacher holds

Affable, slow-talking, pie-and-sauce loving Sam leaned back in the small brightly-coloured Grade 4 chair which teetered dangerously on its back legs as it struggled to keep him upright. The solid farmer boy, already well-versed in chaff cutters, harvests and fertilisers, was the first to be picked for sports teams but you sure didn’t want him in your reading group.

I sighed and sank in my own chair as I prepared to endure the day’s ritual dose of discomfort as Sam struggled through a page of the class novel, tripping over words I’d been reading since kindergarten. The teacher made gentle encouraging sounds as she gave Sam her full attention, ignoring the titters from the back row.

The wall clock sounded off seconds of tense silence as Sam, flushed and embarrassed, attempted to make sense of the unfamiliar words that swam on the page before him. At this pace, The 27th Annual African Hippopotamus Race was turning into an endurance marathon.

The class started to fidget. Sam continued to squirm. My heartbeat began to quicken. After several minutes, he was finally nearing the end of the page, and I, seated beside him, would have to read next. Sam let out a breath and dropped the book onto his desk like he was releasing a heavy beam, and then sat, head bowed, as a cacophony of voices rose around him. “Finally!” “At last!” “Yes!” “C’mon Mrs Lamb, it’s Amanda’s turn!”

Mrs Lamb walked over to Sam’s desk, placed her hand on top of his, and whispered, “Well done”. Sam’s pained eyes met hers, and a brief flicker of confidence played on his countenance.

I swallowed and picked up my own dog-eared copy of the book as my heart thumped in my chest. Despite the drumbeat of my pulse, which to my own ears seemed so much louder than the clock’s staccato rhythm, I picked up where Sam had left off and began to read clearly and smoothly: “There came into view, travelling fast, a sleek, low, shiny, bright red sports car, with flashing silver wheels, and behind the steering wheel sat a huge hippopotamus… ”

Every story reveals a secret

Although it was decades ago, I still vividly recall that moment in a Grade Four classroom in country Victoria brightly adorned with green and gold streamers and posters of Willy the Koala, Australia’s mascot of the 1984 Olympic Games.

I remember the mixture of emotions I felt: embarrassment and sympathy for Sam; a rush of childish love for my teacher for her kindness to him; a sense of pride in my own ability mingled with the unpleasant realisation that I was showing my friend up.

Every story reveals a secret, and here is my first: learning is emotional. Learning feels, and sometimes hurts, and every person—teacher and student alike—will experience an emotional response to what is happening in the room.

Secret #1: great teachers know learning is emotional.

The pain of the reading circle

Strangely, despite my advanced reading skills, I could relate to Sam. I too had been ridiculed by my classmates. Shortly after starting at this new school, already my seventh, I was placed in an advanced reading program frequented mostly by self-assured Grade Sixes.

My first group reading experience involved us sitting in a circle. Ten pairs of inquisitive and perhaps slightly antagonising eyes stared at me… and ten mouths erupted into giggles and sniggers as I pronounced ‘initiate’ incorrectly. The attending teacher had said nothing, leaving me to blush ashamedly and then, with faltering voice, continue with the page.

Decades later, an accomplished adult, my heart beats just a little faster as I place myself back in that little circle. A second secret is revealed: the emotional experiences of a young learner can stay with them forever. This reminds me to intentionally think about the experiences I’m creating, or allowing, in my classroom.

Secret #2: great teachers are aware that we carry our experiences forever.


Mid-west farmer’s boy

What about Sam? Did he ever get over the true humiliation of struggling to read, the playground taunts, the cheeks flushed red, the wishing to disappear under the table or better still, to retreat to the safety of his farm, where he was a knowledgeable prince in a land quite foreign to many of his classmates?

I’m afraid I don’t know what became of him… but I sometimes wonder.

I do know that Sam was the son of a wheat farmer in the Western District. He had an older brother who had left school at 14 to work fulltime on the farm with dad. Sam was very proud of his big brother, and talked non-stop about being old enough to leave school and join him.

He said his dad was happy for him to give up school soon… a thought that horrified me.

Why, oh why would you want to leave such a wonderful place, full of books and libraries and projects? To me, coming to school was like entering the gates of Willy Wonka’s incredible chocolate factory. But Sam said the only two things he liked about school were meat pies with sauce and playing footy at lunchtime.

This is secret number three… there are many factors beyond the classroom which influence someone’s experience as a learner. What am I not seeing?

Secret #3: great teachers see the whole learner.

Poetry and puns

I can’t speak with personal insight into Sam’s background and his family’s views on the value of education, but I would hazard a guess that an extra pair of strong hands on the farm was more of a priority.

My own parents enjoyed studying and eagerly exposed me to classical music and art. Both voracious readers, mum and dad loved words and our home was drenched with them. I was fed on poetry and puns and nurtured with English humour. Spike Milligan, Fawlty Towers, A. A. Milne and The Goon Show were frequent guests who injected frivolity and wonder into my learning of English.

My father was always learning. He had a rich working life spanning science, engineering, policing and education, and then at the age of sixty qualified as a nurse. My mother studied linguistics, taught my sister and I to read before we started school, and gave free English classes to Sudanese refugee women.

Secret #4: great teachers know it takes a village to raise a learner.



We were not wealthy, and my friends thought my family was strange. In fact, for much of my childhood we didn’t even own a television set, but I wouldn’t swap the wonderful memories I have of sitting in front of the fire after dinner, hearing my mother read chapters of intriguing adventures to the family.

Or of eagerly awaiting the arrival of the library van as it lumbered into our small country town each month, where we armed ourselves with as many books as we were allowed to borrow. One primary-school year I kept a list of the number of novels I read; it surpassed 300—all novels, a mixture of junior and adult fiction.

Secret five is really no secret at all; reading is a joy, and to possess this is an incredible, enriching gift. Reading widely expands your vocabulary and makes you a better writer, but even more, incites wonder in the world around you.

Secret #5: great teachers champion reading.

Amidst the chalk dust

Upon this foundation my teachers were able to build by stretching and challenging me.

One teacher in particular, an eccentric Mrs Robinson, whom I picture enveloped in voluminous whirls of chalk dust as she frantically searched for the reading glasses which were perched on her head, prodded me to further refine my already well-written essays, teaching me to pare and polish and sandpaper to produce superior pieces.

While her students saw her as odd (and old), she exuberated a passion that was exhilaratingly infectious, and her class soon became a favourite. Mrs Robinson taught me secret number six: a teacher’s passion and perseverance will impact their learners no matter the generation gap.

Secret #6: great teachers know their passion is contagious.


Broadened horizons

Another, Ms Wilson, expanded my outlook by introducing me to contemporary writers from her personal collection I had not yet discovered and as a result, presented me with new ways of seeing and thinking. The secret learned here is short and sweet: be authentically you—take the time to share of yourself and your students will benefit!

Secret #7: great teachers are approachable and authentic.

Unfortunately, not all teachers stretch and challenge. Some instead stunt and others abandon – you can read about them in my next post.

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson

The secrets I learned as a ten-year-old have greatly shaped me as an educator. I’m keenly aware that many of the students who sit before me haven’t had the positive exposure to learning that I have. Others will have significant challenges to overcome, or be caught up in events outside the classroom that are completely beyond their control or mine.

Reflecting on my childhood classroom experiences challenges me daily to be better: to be empathetic, to seek the bigger picture, to make connections and to continue to pursue excellence in my teaching through the deepening of my own learning.

So here’s to Miss Lamb and Mrs Robinson and Ms Wilson. Here’s to us—the educators who live and breathe our subjects, who give students a feeling of worth, who reach out and share of our libraries and ourselves.

Join the conversation…we’d love to hear your comments. What (or who) inspired you to become a teacher? As a student, who positively influenced you? What secrets have you uncovered?

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