Why an Impatient Person Cannot Teach

Hillel the Sage is quoted as having taught, “A quick, impatient person cannot teach.” Why might that be? In this essay I offer five reasons, having to do with benefiting from thoughtful pacing, the calming effects of silence, and the insights allowed through taking time for reflection.

First, in designing their course syllabi, expert instructors often display impatience as they try to cover too much material. In their desire to deliver as much knowledge as possible to novices, they forget the long and often arduous path they themselves pursued to accumulate that knowledge. They focus only on the product, the state of contemporary knowledge, rather than on a few key insights that could be pursued more deeply. Breadth is achieved but with a loss of understanding.

Second, in designing specific class sessions, overambitious instructors, having already packed their syllabus with an avalanche of details, try to cover too much. This is especially a problem for content oriented instructors, who think of themselves as deliverers of their field’s knowledge, rather than as welcoming guides who might motivate students to pursue that knowledge on their own. Overwhelmed with substantive content, students simply tune out.

Third, impatient instructors respond abruptly or halfheartedly to questions students asked in class. They take the misinterpretations revealed by students’ questions as a sign that students are ill-prepared and perhaps not qualified to be in the class. Rather than using questions to discover misunderstandings that indicate where an instructor has fallen short in enabling students to learn the material, they push on so that they can “cover” the material assigned for the day.

Fourth, when students visit during office hours, impatient instructors use the occasion as another opportunity to “tell” students about the course. Still in lecture mode, they miss out on a golden opportunity to discover more about their students and how course time might be better used in reaching them. Patient instructors relax and allow students to talk, taking their cues from what students reveal about how they are interpreting lessons from the course. Patient instructors listen and then talk.

Fifth, impatient to be done with an assignment so that they can move on to the next, anxious instructors either prohibit “late” assignments or penalize them severely. Rather than seeing late assignments as a sign that students are struggling with course material, assignments for other courses, part-time jobs, and other pressures, impatient instructors treat late assignments as another sign of their students’ failures to live up to their standards. Patient instructors, having anticipated that not all students will meet the announced deadlines, factor the possibility of late assignments into their course planning. They focus on the learning objective, rather than on the speed with which it is reached.

As Hillel the Sage might say, a thoughtful, patient person makes the best teacher. They recognize the folly of trying to cram too much into a single course and instead aim for goals that can be reached at a comfortable pace. Patient instructors recognize that moments of silence in a class session allow students to pause and reflect on what they have learned, deepening their understanding. Patient instructors don’t set draconian rules about “late” assignments, but instead acknowledge that we live in a complex and disorderly world in which the best of intentions are often thwarted by unexpected events. Putting these ideas into practice honors the wisdom of Hillel the Sage, a truly generous teacher.

I wish to acknowledge having learned from Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991, and my son, Daniel Aldrich and my daughter-in-law, Yael Aldrich. The quote is from Hillel the Sage, the Pirkei Avos (translation: Ethics of the Fathers)