Being a good teacher or mentor is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn. Everyone struggles with praising or encouraging others, but this is how we learn. The focus of teaching should be to establish lasting confidence and skill in that order.

Unfortunately, many teachers forget about confidence and focus entirely on the skill part. Schools can be terrible at this because of using grades — and not feedback — to measure the student’s success. But a student can only be as successful as the teacher allows, and I, for one, am a great example of that fact.

In Experience is not Talent, I briefly touched on how we need more developers and businesses need to hire more Junior developers. In this article, I’ll give tips on becoming a better teacher.

She set me up to fail.

Years before receiving English lessons in school, I’d taught myself English by watching TV and reading Dungeons and Dragons books, and while my written English was still struggling, it was passable.

When I was in the 7th grade, I started receiving German lessons. I was happy to start learning a new language. After all, English opened my mind to a new world of adventure and thrills.

She wore tall red lacquer boots, strict makeup, and tight-fitting borderline BDSM outfits. At least, that’s how I remember my German teacher. Realistically it was probably not that bad, but I was a teenager, my hormones were going crazy, and my brain focused on strange things at that age. The red lacquer boots, I’m sure of, though.

“NEIN! Du Dummkopf!”

She did many things wrong, but one of the biggest things she got wrong was getting the tone wrong. We were there to learn a language, and yet it felt more like we were there to be yelled at.

As I sat in the classroom, I tried to be as small as possible, so she wouldn’t call me to the front of the class to be drilled on proper grammar. Get one thing wrong, and you were doomed to extra homework and a public scolding for not having done your homework, followed by a series of german curse words screamed into your face from three inches away.

Praise & Criticique

In the end, I didn’t learn much of the language. Worse, it followed me into high school and further in life. Until just a few years ago, I genuinely thought I was inept at languages and that I shouldn’t even try learning a new one.

Humans are conditioned to avoid pain, even if it’s only emotional. Fear of failure or ridicule is an immense driving force. As a teacher or mentor, giving constructive criticism is paramount to the success of our students and, by proxy ourselves. Here are a few things you can do to be more supportive of those you teach:

“All decisions are made using the best information available at the time, and given the constraints of the environment.”

  1. Be liberal with your praise. Praise isn’t something that should be in short supply. Withholding praise is counterproductive to the learning process.
  2. Be welcoming to anyone seeking out your advice or help.
  3. Acknowledge the person for seeking your input. Even if the problem seems trivial, it isn’t for the person seeking your help.
  4. Know the difference between critical abuse and constructive criticism. Are you focusing on what was done correctly and what could be improved? Or only what was done incorrectly?
  5. Was your input requested? Or are you providing it unprompted? People asking for input are always more receptive to it.

Confidence first approach

Skill alone doesn’t make anyone great at what they do. Confidence is vital in making sure the skill is used to maximum effect. Whether you are a software engineer, Program manager, Biologist, or Plumber — if you aren’t confident in your ability to do your job, it’s unlikely anybody else is either.

Confidence first moves the main focus from the skill itself to the teaching of that skill. We learn through praise and critique, not only through repetition and certainly not through abuse. So here are a few more ways you can put confidence first when teaching or mentoring:

  1. We all fail at first. How you — as the teacher — help your students get back on track is critical. Normalize failure. Don’t minimize it, but make sure your students know it’s normal and ok.
  2. Guide, don’t offer the solution. Confidence in a skill comes from using that skill and seeing it work. Success is far sweeter when we can figure things out independently, even if we were guided there.
  3. Build on small successes. One small success can lead to the next, set many smaller goals and a few bigger ones. Succeeding at smaller goals can build the confidence to tackle bigger ones.
  4. Be honest. Don’t fall into the trap of praising everything. Critique is necessary to grow. We learn from our mistakes but learn the wrong things if we encounter ridicule or abuse.

Constant praise becomes disingenuous. People respond to honesty and know when they’ve made a mistake. Don’t smother mistakes in praise, but make sure they know everyone fails sometimes.

I learned French

I was in France for a holiday with my now ex-girlfriend when she suggested I try Duolingo to learn some French, and while skeptical, I decided to try. I was amazed at how easy I found it, breezing through lessons and even starting to use the language — although haltingly — at the local bakery.

I remember talking to her about how terrible I was at languages and praising the app for being such a great teacher. It had to be. It was able to teach even a Dummkopf like me. To be fair, it is an excellent app for learning new languages, but more importantly, I did not encounter abuse when using it. Even when misusing the language, my ex would gently correct me while praising my progress.

My French could be better, but I am confident walking into a restaurant or shop in France. Sure, I’ll bumble along, and my limited vocabulary will have me scrambling for words — and possibly gesticulating wildly — but I will improve. That is the difference having confidence makes.

Have you encountered critical abuse? If so, you know why confidence first is the best way to learn. Leave a comment below if you have had a bad teacher or a teacher you liked, and tell me why.