By Robert Sternberg, Ph.D.
In the course of our educational experiences, there are the many teachers who are good, the few teachers who are great and the handful of teachers we never forget. As a psychologist who does research on teaching, I have been interested in the characteristics of the teachers we never forget. What do these teachers have in common?
I am blessed to have had four such unforgettable teachers:
The first was my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Alexa. I had done poorly on group IQ tests as a child, and as a result, was expected to be a poor student. I had fulfilled the expectations set for me, and had become a poor student. Mrs. Alexa, who expected much more of me, pulled me out of my gently rolling descent toward the depths of abysmal academic achievement, and helped me transform myself into an A student.
The second teacher was my undergraduate mentor, Endel Tulving. He taught me that the fact that many psychologists (or other scientists) believe something to be true does not make it true. Indeed, he often seemed to be skeptical of exactly the beliefs psychologists hold most dear. He was willing to “defy the crowd.” He also taught me the importance of doing not just good work, but my absolute best.
The third teacher was my graduate mentor, Gordon Bower. He taught me the importance of following one’s own intellectual passion. Bower has had many successful students, I think, in large part because he knew when to intervene, but also when to leave his students alone to find their own niche and to find themselves. He also taught me the importance of life beyond the groves of academe.
And the fourth teacher, Wendell Garner, was my faculty mentor when I became an assistant professor. He taught me that one is judged by the positive contributions one makes. All psychologists spend some part of their career critiquing the work of others. Garner showed me that the psychologists who are remembered are those who have something positive and important to say.
What these teachers have in common, I believe–what sets them apart–is that they are what I have come to call transformational mentors, whom I will distinguish from transactional mentors. The terms transformational and transactional are drawn from the literature on leadership (see, e.g., Bass 1998) but, when applied to mentorship, they have a somewhat different meaning.
Most mentors are transactional mentors–people with whom one has meaningful transactions. The mentor is professionally and personally supportive, a source of advice, a sounding board when a student needs one, and a helper in times of distress. A transformational mentor is all of these things, plus something more: He or she inspires one, reveals new ways of understanding professional and personal matters, and motivates one to transcend who one is to become a different kind of professional and, perhaps, person. He or she literally transforms one’s mental world, and sometimes one’s physical world as well. What sets apart the four specific mentors mentioned above is that they transformed my life.
When we prepare our students to teach, perhaps the most important thing we can teach them is how to become transformational mentors. There is no one formula for becoming a transformational mentor: Rather, as mentors, we must capitalize on our individual strengths to find ways to enter this role. But I think transformational mentors have in common that they are willing to inspire their students in certain ways.
Transformational mentors are the teachers and role models we never forget. They help their students to:
- Become the best they can be by recognizing and capitalizing on their strengths, and recognizing and compensating for or correcting their weaknesses.
- Create their own niche of professional and personal accomplishment, rather than simply following in the footsteps of their mentors.
- Discern the importance not just of solving problems, but also of realizing just what the important problems are, whether in one’s professional or personal life.
The most important kind of teacher we all can be is the teacher who becomes a transformational mentor, and in the process, changes a student’s life. Long after good lecturers, seminar leaders and advisers are forgotten, the transformational mentor will be remembered, and even more importantly, will live on through the students whose lives he or she has transformed.