11 Patience is the Most Important Element of Good Teaching

A photo of Brent Iverson
Figure 11.1: Brent Iverson

Brent Iverson

Students struggling to grasp an important new concept or attempting to think critically about complex issues need to know that you are not disappointed that they are having difficulty. Sometimes in my office hours or even during a lecture a student will ask a question and I will provide an answer that in my own mind is world class, ranked right up there with the most lucid explanations I have ever delivered. Instead of the complete enlightenment I might have expected, often I am confronted with an apologetic, “I still don’t have any idea what you are talking about” from a now increasingly hesitant student. If the issue at hand is truly important, I calmly try the explanation from a different point of view, with enthusiasm and encouragement, often stating that the concept gives many students difficulty. I will not let it go until I am sure the student understands.

In these situations, I remain patient and persistent above all else. I do not want the student to sense even a hint of frustration on my part that would provide him or her with an excuse to give up on him- or herself. I know that even if I am boring the rest of the students present because they had already mastered the material in question, the fact that I keep moving forward in a steadfast way sends a strong and positive signal to everyone. The entire class cannot help but understand that I want each of them to learn all of the material being presented because I think it is important that they do so.

I said something like, “How come you didn’t get frustrated with her? That concept was so easy and she just didn’t get it.” My father responded by saying, “Why would I get frustrated? It is not easy for her.” Then, after a pause, he said, “Don’t forget that many things she thinks are easy are hard for you.”

There is an element of humility required here, and I learned this from my father when I was a teenager. My father, a brilliant Silicon Valley engineer, would often tutor neighborhood kids struggling with math. He spent a great deal of time with the daughter of my mother’s hairdresser because the girl was trying to become the first member of her family to attend college. One afternoon I was in an adjacent room listening to my father calmly explain the same algebra concept to her over and over again. Never getting impatient or showing disappointment, he kept at it for a half-hour or more until the lesson was finally mastered. I was fifteen and more or less full of myself at the time. After his pupil had left, I could not help but ask my father how he could remain so patient. I said something like, “How come you didn’t get frustrated with her? That concept was so easy and she just didn’t get it.” My father responded by saying, “Why would I get frustrated? It is not easy for her.” Then, after a pause, he said, “Don’t forget that many things she thinks are easy are hard for you.” Message received, Dad, and I am a much better teacher for it. I find myself relying on the wisdom of these words many times during each semester that I teach. They help me maintain a calm and patient demeanor in front of even those students who are struggling the most.

A photo of UT Permian Basin campus with overlayed text reading, "Does your class help students choose a path in life?"
Figure 11.2: UT Permian Basin
A photo of John Hadjimarcou
Figure 11.3: John Hadjimarcou

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The Little Orange Book by The University of Texas System Academy of Distinguished Teachers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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