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3 Qualities of Great Teachers

A FRIEND OF MINE calls me periodically, and I, him to update each other on our aspirations and family matters. With him I know I can be fully myself. We learn from each other and need to know someone else outside of our family is watching out for us. Talking with him inevitably puts me at ease.

That “at ease”-ness is part of what I’ve realized being a good teacher, mentor, consultant and facilitator – heck, a good father – is all about. We don’t promise our tribes or members or clients (or children) that what they’re going to experience is easy. And like my good friend we don’t offer empty truisms or false hope or unsolicited fix-it answers.

But we do create a space so our tribes feel safe and watched-out for enough that they can go to places within themselves and in their relationships that they otherwise could not alone.

A facilitator “gets” you. And although she’s willing to go part of the way with you, she’s there mostly to watch out for you while you take your own creative journey. With such a facilitator, you feel at ease even as you move through creative, existential, spiritual challenges.


It’s taken me a long, long time to realize that these qualities of a facilitator are as important if not more important than all the stuff you think you know that you’re dying to share with your tribe, your students, your audiences.

Modern-day “gurus” (not of the ancient ilk) often get trapped in what they think they know, and they also get trapped in the cult of their adoring fans and followers.

The man in India who opened to me the heart of yoga – T.K.V. Desikachar – could have gotten trapped. His father was among the most influential yogis of the twentieth century. But Desikachar’s student and friend the world thinker J. Krishnamurti advised a young Desikachar to avoid “the guru path” and instead follow the path of the acharya, the honorable teacher. He warned me and continues to warn others of the drive for easy answers. And there’s a huge difference between the person who offers easy answers and the person who equips you to handle your own path with a little more ease.

“Guru” means most literally “remover of darkness” – not an “expert in a field.” But I suspect the greatest teachers do not remove darkness for us. Instead, they point the way so we can navigate the inevitable darkness with a bit more easefulness.

Sort of like Dante’s Virgil.


The best teachers, facilitators, and mentors who have led me and whom I have interviewed share these qualities:

Versatility – Before he died, the best & most formidable Zen master (an Italian-American photographer and former chemist) I ever encountered drew from Shakespeare and Whitman, the problems in Washington and the problems in his own heart, from monasteries and marriages (plural) to awaken us. A similar quality is true of my greatest mentors in writing and in business.

Versatility is that ability to draw from several resources and to call upon any number of tools or skillful means to bring out what’s best in you – and then to place in your hands some of those very tools. (It’s also about not being afraid to re-create your best self as your life journey demands.)

Confidence – I am a root-word geek. And this is one of my favorites: The root “fid” means “faith” as in “fidelity.” And a great teacher or mentor acts with faith (con-fid-ence) not only in her best self and in her process but also in your best self and potential.

And she also has the confidence to be humble and to fail.

Authenticity – It’s an over-used word. But you know it when you feel it in a mentor or facilitator. Or you don’t. It comes in part from the previous two qualities. It comes from practicing every day to listen to the voice of one’s own authority. And to respond accordingly.

Those are the qualities I aspire toward. I fall short time after time, but aspiring toward them picks me up, brushes off my pants, and says, “Go try again!”

Those are my ideas.


Whether it’s a mentor, parent, or leader, what are the qualities you most seek and cherish in a facilitator?

And haven’t you been that person to somebody else? And aren’t you that person ready to blossom even more?

I’d love to gather and share your ideas.

See you in the woods,

P.S. If once or twice a month, you want updates on the many, many offerings this winter and spring, a monthly compendium of these articles, and some free tips and discounts, drop your email in the box to the right. (We hold your e-address sacred! No kidding. We abide by that “Do unto others…” thing advocated by another great teacher, especially when it comes to your privacy.) -jbd
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  1. I think you’ve already touched on it, Jeffrey, but the quality that came to me as I was reading was humility.

    You said, “But we do create a space so our tribes feel safe and watched-out for enough that they can go to places within themselves and in their relationships that they otherwise could not alone.”

    With humility, facilitators provide that space where everyone has a voice, where they feel safe to share that voice, and know that their contributions are recognized and valued.

    1. Kim, you’re spot-on. That’s been my experience with other teachers and leaders – and my learning curve – too. I think that’s why I qualified the “confidence” element.

      “facilitators provide that space where everyone has a voice” – that is it. And it’s true, we all do have a voice worth being heard.

      Thanks for dropping in, Kim.

  2. I’m glad you emphasized “versatility.” As a teacher I’ve really worked on that a lot. For me it means understanding that different people approach knowledge in different ways. It’s easy for me to teach someone who thinks like me; the challenge is to find the different ways a topic can be taught to different people.

    1. Patrick ~ Find ways to teach people who learn differently from you. That’s so important, and one I also have to keep reminding myself of. I also find I have to “un-teach” myself to remember what I used to not know. You might like Julie Dirsken’s witty, clearly written, and well-designed book Design for How People Learn. The book made this little lightbulb go off in my head – again.

      Thanks for dropping in. Always good to have your voice.

  3. These are great qualities. One that I would add is “Giving.” If the student is willing to give their attention and hard work, then the teacher should be giving in their guidance. In this two-way giving, the student learns a great deal and, maybe, the teacher, too. I have had great teachers who exhibited this quality, and I will always be grateful for it. Thanks, Jeffrey.

    1. Jon ~ Your comments come at an ideal time as I’m leading a group of creatives through a course & training during the next several days. They seem remarkably generous in their curiosity, comments, and mutual support. I anticipate learning a great deal from them and hope they feel the reciprocity. Thanks for dropping in the Hut, Jon. Always good to have your perspective. -Jeffrey