Anu Taranath. Photo credit: by Mary Levin.

When we think back on the people who influenced our lives, we often remember our teachers. These individuals, perhaps in the school classroom or even outside in the “classroom” of daily living, endure as indelible impressions that shaped who we are today. Scholar Joseph Campbell in the PBS film “Mythos I: The Shaping of Our Mythic Tradition” spoke of the important part that teachers play in the “pedagogy of the individual” navigating through the cycle of life, the environment and the greater society.

So what makes good teachers, one might ask? What qualities personify good teachers (and not so good, for that matter)? These questions, among others, were posed to three noteworthy teachers who have distinguished themselves in the area of jazz studies and performance, history and multicultural studies, and comparative literature: Cuong Vu, Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Washington (UW); Tracy Lai, Historian and Instructor at Seattle Central Community College; and Dr. Anu Taranath, Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at UW.

Recently, Vu and Taranath were both awarded the 2010 UW Distinguished Teaching Award. Last spring, Lai was one of four delegates sent by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Solidarity Center on a Study Tour of Cambodia.

In recollecting his past teachers, Vu admits “Some were terrible, and some were good…the main things I took from the bad teachers were that problem solving skills, empathy, sympathy, passion, flexibility, intuition and inspiration are priceless and are keys to motivating people and helping them realize what they need to learn and how to master it.” While Lai now teaches history, she remembers her piano teacher, Mrs. Adams: “I had to sit and wait through my older sister’s lessons…she could see how much I wanted to learn…Though I was underage…[she] gave me a sense of possibility and performance.”

While these three individuals may diverge in the subjects they are passionate about, they share some similarities in their teaching styles. Vu customizes his private lessons with students: “I intuitively feel it out from lesson to lesson and the trajectory is flexible and often subtly changes course.” Lai utilizes an experiential learning model in the classroom rather than an “informative old-style lecture [in] helping students to raise their self-expectations (whether this is in terms of their own knowledge or skills, [or] what they expect to do with [their] college education).” Taranath also follows a flexible teaching style, admittedly describing it as more “organic and intuitive.” Often she may “not be sure of the outcome” when she begins her class, instead relying on “the vibes of the students.”

Both Lai and Taranath raise issues around race, class, gender, and sexual orientation through the class curricula. These include books reflecting “the diversity of experiences in the U.S. and the global arena,” according to Lai. “The students are also colleagues,” says Taranath, who sees herself also in the learning process rather than as an “expert.” If tensions arise during a discussion, she seizes the opportunity to “depersonalize issues [and instead] recognize the ideas they represent.”

Upon interviewing these teachers, it is apparent that one cannot separate the person from the teaching. The activity is inherently about relationships, as Vu puts it, “The teacher has to have the humility and respect for the student as a person” to fully realize the student’s potential. “This takes a lot of investment, especially emotionally to a certain extent, in the student. So it comes down to passion for the music as well as passion for the fellow human being.”

Author and teacher Barry Green further expounds on this humanistic approach in his book, “The Mastery of Music.” He quotes fellow educator Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser: “’…what catapults people beyond that into true greatness has to do with the messenger, not just the message: it’s their vision, their communication skills, their people skills, their understanding of others that makes people great. The real heroes are people who are always looking for ways to empower the people around them.’”

Green continues, “Tim teaches that the messenger is as important as the message, that the attitude of teachers or leaders is the key to unlocking the value of their message when all’s said and done.”

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