I had the good fortune to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in the company of two university professors, people I would consider masters of their craft. A lot of the conversation was about teaching. What are the characteristics of a great teacher?
Here’s what we decided after a couple of glasses of Thanksgiving wine. A great teacher is a combination of actor, salesperson, and agent provocateur.
Your students are expecting a great performance—think Masterpiece Theater, but without the British accent. Come to class prepared. Have a Plan C, in case plans A and B fail. The show must go on. Leave your personal problems at home. Be enthusiastic and engaging. Smile.
Nobody wants to sit through an hour or more in the company of someone who clearly isn’t passionate about what they do. If you are not in love with your subject matter, fall in love. Or change subjects, if possible.
Students have a fine-tuned sense of negativity and boredom—bring something new and original to your starring role, even if you’ve played it hundreds of times.
Be a moving target. Keep your students guessing. Keep them laughing. Keep them on the edge of their seats. Call on them for answers and questions. Entice them to shut their laptops and pay attention.
First Few Minutes Set the Tone
You only have one chance to make a great first impression. The first few minutes of the first class session set the tone for the entire semester.
You need to meet those expectant looks with the conviction that the next 14 weeks will be a worthwhile experience.
Plan something stimulating for the first class session. Your students may expect you to go over the syllabus and then dismiss class early. Confound their expectations.
If your class is small enough, do something that lets you learn their names. Ask about their hopes, their fears, and their goals for the coming semester. Get them talking to each other. Show your students that you care.
What if you teach a large lecture class? Don’t lecture that first day. Don’t show a PowerPoint. Find out what they know. Deconstruct the course title. Ask the students what the words actually mean. Why do we have this course in the curriculum? Why is it important? How will it benefit them?
Provoke, Protect, and Defend
Take your students out of their comfort zone. Provoke them. Learning happens when there is a tension between what students know and what they want to know.
The mind is like a muscle—it grows only when worked hard.
Depending on where you teach, you may find that your students are overly passive. They want to fly under the radar, doing just enough to maintain whatever GPA they need to stay in school and keep their financial aid flowing.
This passivity may be caused by technology. Students today are constantly receiving multiple streams of information—from their iPods, smart phones, and computers.
They can sit back and take it all in—without having to do anything other than punch a few keys or click a mouse.
Students may also be passive because they have been conditioned at school or at home. Don’t rock the boat, don’t question authority, keep your head down.
Whatever the reason, you need to break on through to the other side. Challenge them to express an opinion, to take a stand, to make a case.
But be sure to make your classroom environment one in which students feel safe to think and express themselves freely. Protect and defend free thought and free speech. Mutual respect is the key.
Master of the Universe
As a teacher, you have dual responsibilities. You need to master your subject matter. And you need to master the art of teaching.
No matter what you teach, chances are your subject matter is constantly evolving. New discoveries, new technology, new scholarship, and new methods of inquiry—all of these shape the way you must approach your subject.
Teaching methods change too. You can fear change or embrace it. “Put head in sand” is not one of the instructions in the faculty handbook. And if change is taking place in other classrooms, your students will likely know that you are shortchanging them—and yourself.
You’re Not a Walking Wikipedia
Yes, you are a master of your subject matter, but realize that you probably can’t know everything. Your job description isn’t “walking Wikipedia.” Have confidence in what you do know. And make sure you can find the answers to things you don’t know. Better yet, have your students find the answers.
Teaching is not a sender-receiver enterprise. Great teachers do not simply transfer what they know to their students. That’s what libraries and the Internet are for.
Instead, great teachers stimulate their students’ interest and curiosity. They create a classroom climate that allows learning to happen. And they provide the resources that enable students to seek answers and solve problems.
It’s Your Classroom
From the moment you walk into the room, the classroom is yours. You set the tone. You make the rules. The classroom is a magic room—it’s a place where learning happens.
Shape the environment so that learning happens the way you want it to happen.
Do you want students to use their laptops? Text on their mobile phones? Eat their lunch? Talk to their neighbors? Work on a crossword puzzle?
Don’t assume anything—let the students know your expectations.
Contributing to the Field
Most teachers do more than just teach. If you are tenured or tenure-track faculty, you are involved in both scholarship and service—writing books and articles, serving on committees, and working with students outside of the classroom.
If you are an adjunct, you may run your own business, be involved with a professional organization, and maintain an online presence through a website or blog.
Whatever the case, great teachers make significant contributions to their field. Their students benefit from this depth and breadth of experience. It’s a win-win situation.
If you are a teacher or a student, I’d love to hear from you!