I only have half an hour. After that, I’m running like a trail of fire following a line of gunpowder, running and teaching and tracing and retracing the steps of my little red car across Jozi. After that, I’m leading others down the rabbit-holes of isiZulu, guiding them through the vast subterranean architecture of my other, father, tongue.

And then after that it’s home to my Khethiwe. And to Dambuza, Ntombenhle and Thwalambiza.

But now it’s time to write. I sit here sifting through the sounds of the previous days, slowly drowning yesterday’s amafukwa and onogandilanga in a slurry of remembered mental notes and soundbites.

Do I talk about the client who, sitting across from me every Wednesday morning for the past four months, made a sudden and wondrous leap of logic and understood a fundamental concept up to which I’d been building for a couple of lessons? Do I talk about that feeling of sudden epiphany?

Or should I write about the way that another client, a teenage boy (ibhungu, to be exact), has begun (after 2 years of remedial work) to interact totally in isiZulu during our lessons, and has even begun to compose in it?

What makes a good student? What makes a good teacher? That’s what I’m going to write about.

I’ve always believed that a good teacher is someone who is not unwilling to say three very important words every once in a while: “I don’t know”. This single characteristic can account for many other failings (not being a particularly good administrator, perhaps, or not being too hot on discipline and standard conduct in the classroom), and is bolstered by other characteristics such as divergent thinking, well-developed analogical and metaphorical processes, and a kind of empathy that enables responsiveness to the needs of the learners in the classroom. But it all starts with that “I don’t know”.

A good student, on the other hand, is an idea that has been warped over many years. Originally, a student was simply one-who-is-eager, from the Latin verb studeo. Now, the images conjured up by the term are those of A’s and Distinctions, neatness and punctuality, orderliness and unchallenging silences. Rubbish.

Every single person can be a student, and a good one. The trick is that the thing they’re learning has to be something about which they are eager or interested. Interest is an amorphous concept, but ‘marks’ or ‘grades’ were certainly not a part of it for me. So the good students are the ones who are interested, and who set aside headspace to the thing that you’re teaching them – outside of the brief moment in which you’re bombarding them with information as though it were gamma radiation.

A good student has got nothing to do with the marks he or she attains, or the grade or degrees to which s/he advances by means of those marks. Those are markers to assess ‘competence’ in certain fields against a set of standardised means and measures. Yet it is an obvious fact that people are not all the same. We are all different from each other. Not all of us are good with exams. Some of us excel in face-to-face (viva) situations, and others get stagefright. So why do we judge everyone by the same standard?

A good student has everything to do with the way that s/he gives the information meaning. The stuff you learn has to matter to you, even if only a little. Otherwise you will learn it for an exam (which matters because your whole damn life depends on a single standardised set of tests) and promptly forget it the next day.

I don’t give tests in my classes. I don’t have to. With a short one-on-one interaction, I can assess how comfortable someone is with what they’ve been taught, and develop a course to suit their needs and progress towards their goals. This is a luxury with which I am blessed, admittedly, but one which is far more useful than marking a series of tasks in a short space of time and assigning a quantitative value to a qualitative experience.

I’ve got to go now, so that’s it for today. Hopefully it’ll be sooner than two months until I write again.