A President's Reflections

Great Teaching

Posted on March 8, 2010

For years I have been mulling over the question of what it takes to be a great teacher.  Not the qualities of the vast middle range of competent and hard working teachers, but the truly exceptional. 

Whole forests have perished for the articles on the topic (including the cover story of yesterday’s NY Times magazine) and it seems we know many of the components that go into teaching effectiveness: a mastery of pedagogy (the science of teaching), of learning styles, of related technologies, and of new learning modalities (group learning, experiential, service, and more).

We also have a pretty clear idea of what constitutes basic competency now: currency in one’s field; being prepared for class; clarity about student outcomes and how to effectively assess them; being available; demonstrating respect for students.

Yet all of the above still falls short of explaining what makes the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher, though we have all had great teachers.  We probably list them among those most influential people in our lives.  We know them when we see them.

I think Atul Gawande might come close to understanding what it takes to go from being very good to great in his book Better.  He doesn’t look at teaching, but his three part prescription: diligence (paying attention to the details, never taking shortcuts, always being on top of things), innovation, and doing the right thing feels like a workable formula. 

My latest theory is that the Exceptional 10% (I’ll call them) possess two primary qualities:

Passion.  Here I mean passion about their subject matter, about the work at hand, about the homework – -the kind of passions that sweeps students up and carries them along.  Our daughter Emma never gravitated to the hard sciences in high school, but she had Rob Bradley for her General Chemistry class and he was so passionate about the topic that she then took Organic Chemistry with him, a killer hard class that she did not need.  Why? Because Rob made Chemistry thrilling and relevant and stimulating. 

Mattering.  I am borrowing the term from Professor Greg Elliot at Brown, a Sociologist who looks at how being felt to matter shapes behavior.  Many, perhaps most, of our students come to us less engaged in learning than we would like them to be.   When teachers set high expectations for them and throw themselves into making sure those students meet those expectations, they let convince students that they matter.  Extra study sessions, tracking down the missing student, scolding the slacker, helping someone find an internship — these are the things that tell students they matter.  Nothing sends the opposite message like lowered expectations.

I have been having a long series of conversations with students about their experiences in the classroom.  Some of those have been disheartening as students describe classes that require little to no homework; writing assignments with cursory feedback and good grades for what the students themselves describe as mediocre work; classes in which a teacher reads from the textbook or plods through yellowed notes.  Maybe worst of all, the teacher students describe as “looking down” on them.

I have been bouyed by student descriptions of their best faculty: the Painchauds, Andrea Bard, Peter Frost, Kishore Pochampally, Sue Losapio, Diane Les Becquets, Cathy Stavenger; Pam Cohen, Pat Spirou, Audrey Rogers, Frank Catano, Mihael Tasto, Mahboubul Hassan, Michele Goldsmith, Audrey Rogers, and others.  Many are adjuncts as well (Micheline Anstey’s name came up so many times I stopped counting).  Most of us could easily add names to the list.  When I ask them what makes these and the others so good, the composite response is something like this:

They are really excited about the material and their classes fly by.  They involve all the students.  They are demanding and make you work, but it never feels like busy work.  They take the time to get to know us.

My survey is inexact and would not stand up to tests for validity and reliability (see Tej, something from Stats lodged in my ailing brain), but these students in the aggregate pointed back to the idea of passion and mattering.   If these notions have any substance, I wonder how we might differently hire, assess, reward and support.  Would we rethink our often unexamined notions about what makes for great faculty?

I’ll end with a bit of sentimentality:

  • Marc Schneiderman (6 th grade)
  • Elizabeth Collins (high school)
  • Betty Roberts (college freshman)
  • Betsy Harter (college)
  • Helen Heineman (college)
  • Charlie Moran (PhD)

These were my great teachers.  All were inspired, demanding, dedicated, and made students believe in themselves by drawing out their best work and helpng them realize their potential.  I remember handing in a very mediocre paper for Helen Heineman’s Chaucer class, knowing that I had slapped the thing together at the 11th hour.  Her disappointment was so much worse than the C grade I received (it probably deserved worse) and stays with me to this day, though I am sure she has long forgot.  I worked like a dog the rest of the term not to get an A, but to justify her belief in me as a student.  She later persuaded me to attend graduate school, personally helped me get into BC, and set me on my path as an educator. 

Most of the teachers I have listed did not work in high status institutions.  The students before them were very much like ours.  We were as easily interested in sports, the other sex,  a good party, and music as we were by our classes.  Yet they had a passion for what they did that grabbed hold of us and they believed in us so we could start believing in ourselves.  For a kid from a working class family, the first kid in the whole extended family to go to college, these teachers were transforming.  The students who have been sharing their stories of our Exceptional 10% describe their faculty in that way.

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