It has been many decades since I completed high school and graduated from university. I remember very little of what I was taught in the classroom and the lecture theatres. But don’t get me wrong, those formative years have shaped me.
I remember some of my teachers and professors. I still remember my primary school English language teacher. I also remember my primary school teacher of history and civics. Two of my high school teachers of biology are unforgettable. The teachers who taught me religious studies, history and chemistry were brilliant too.
Three of the professors who taught me advanced ecology, genetics and freshwater ecology were absolutely outstanding. They, more than anybody else in my life, influenced the career choices I made. I was also lucky to have on my PhD committee world-class ecology professors, I mean absolutely clever.
When I look back at my school days — from primary school through to my PhD studies — my great teachers and professors bring back happy memories of my education experience. These men and women were not just brilliant educators, they were kind. They loved what they did. They loved the students they taught.
We were, I believe, the reason they laboured for long hours. And most of all they believed in us, the students. And we loved them back. A majority of the students worked extremely hard. We believed to fail was to let down our teachers and professors. It was no longer teachers or professors and students. We were on the same team.
The common thread that runs throughout my experience and memory of my teachers and professors is the passion, the indomitable zeal they brought to the subjects and courses they taught. Their passion was contagious. Their emotional connection with the students was palpable.
These great educators brought excitement, delight and joy to learning. Conversely, the not-so-great teachers and professors evoked fear and frustration, dread and worry. For the not-so-great teachers and professors, it was never about the students. It was about them and how quickly they wanted to get over with the lesson. Their attitude was contagious too. I did not like them as individuals. I did not like their subjects or courses. I tolerated them. I persevered through their classes.
Cognitive scientists like Antonio Damasio have shown there is a connection between emotions and learning. Our emotions allocate value to things — what to pay attention to, what to learn and what to remember. And most of all, we learn best and deeply from those we like or those who make us feel they care for us.
The great teachers and professors who formed me present a basis for thinking about teacher attributes. They were absolutely brilliant, their academic abilities were superb. They were extremely hard working. They were passionate about teaching and were deeply committed to their students.
With great teachers every student, regardless of their socioeconomic background, can receive quality education, right from kindergarten to the highest level. Investing in good teachers is imperative.
Alex O Awiti is the Vice Provost and director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University