Born to teach

June 2014


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Metlifecare Senior New Zealander of the Year FRANCES DENZ has won awards for tertiary teaching excellence, yet she has never had any formal teacher education. Here, she shares why she believes great teachers can be born and not always made.

I was thrilled to win the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award in 2013 as it gave academic credence to my teaching methodology. I have had little formal education over the years, due to personal circumstances, and had to learn to prepare, develop, and deliver programmes with no training or support of any kind.

I come from a long line of what used to be called “bossy women”. Women who knew what they wanted, and how to get it. My mother was a left wing working class (as it used to be known) woman who dearly wanted to be an intellectual. My childhood recollections are of her excitedly opening the airmail Guardian newspaper and devouring international political news. Our house always had teenage boys in the kitchen listening to her discuss such fascinating topics as the Israeli Five Day War or the fall of

Tony Benn. I always thought those boys came to listen to Mum and was quite surprised when one recently told me it was because of three attractive daughters, and they put up with Mum!

My dad, of Māori descent, trained as a doctor in the thirties in Britain. As a registrar in the Seamen’s Hospital in London, the vast majority of patients had no English, and he had only English and Māori. He diagnosed by very close observation using sight, sound, and smell. From when I was a very small child, he taught me how to observe people’s responses using all the cues available. I learnt to focus on people’s needs that were expressed in many ways.

In middle age, I became a tutor for those wishing to start a business. The demand for this course was such that over seven years I trained about 5000 people in groups of 20 per class. With no training at all, except for two two-day courses as an educator, I had to develop my own style.

One course taught me that story telling was a useful tool, which was handy to know as I was doing that anyway, and the other was on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). My key learning from this was that I only learnt three things per course – and that if I wasn’t careful, my own pupils would do the same. I wanted better results than that!

I discovered the quickest way to success was to ask the students what worked and what didn’t work over a cup of coffee or at lunch time. By my ability to closely observe the students I knew when I had “lost them”. If I asked them quickly why they had lost concentration or focus, I would get practical information that stopped me making the same mistake again. Perhaps the example (story) I was giving was not totally on message, perhaps it was too long, or perhaps it used the wrong words. I became very aware of the different learning styles and how to adapt and move between kinaesthetic, aural, or visual language and examples. Inclusivity was key to the whole group staying up to speed, which was challenging as the classes contained a mix from academic graduates to those with little or no education.

Reflective learning became an important component for me. Replaying each class in my head, considering each student in turn and the cues they had given me, and how I used those cues to adapt my approach became a major review focus. I also asked for regular feedback on the course material to make sure that it suited the targeted groups and updated it as required.

As a practitioner with no academic training, I hate jargon. I believe jargon frequently excludes more people than it includes. It puts up barriers that can reflect power bases, and it disenfranchises many. Therefore, I try to use straightforward language and add the jargon only if it is essential to the learning process. Communication is a two-way process and requires both the delivery and receipt of information to be as painless as possible.

I also learnt that classes made up of adults brought many skills to the table, and if they knew more about a topic than I did, they were asked to contribute.

I knew from my own experience that timing was of utmost importance to students. As an ex-smoker, I knew how a person’s attention wandered if the smoko break was late and others were also hanging on for a finish. So I now pride myself on starting absolutely on time, which respects those who turn up on time, and finishing to the minute of the agreed time. This makes people feel safe!

In recent years, I have moved to teaching governance to highly successful and committed people who are very experienced in their own field. Again understanding the level of knowledge a person has and giving them the opportunity to share it with the group is a valuable teaching tool. It does expose any misinformation that person may have gained and gives me the opportunity to replace their inaccurate understanding if required. This, of course, does require tact and understanding!

Teaching governance certainly requires an ability to reflect on one’s own experience, and we have built this reflective process into the course so that our practicing directors integrate their own experiential learning with the theoretical course material.

As these clients are very busy directors of business, timing is very important indeed. Information needs to be clear, explicit, brief, and carefully targeted to meet their needs. They are very impatient of any waffle.

Above all, however, I credit my success to a love of teaching, belief in my students, and a passion for my topic. 


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