Notes from the VisCom Classroom: What Makes a Great Teacher?

Since 2002, one of the highlights of my summer has been working with the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, helping to teach its “Coastal Ecology by Kayak” field school. The sanctuary, located near the tip of Cape Cod, is part of the Massachusetts Audubon Society (commonly known as Mass Audubon), which was the nation’s first Audubon society.

Each summer, we run two sessions of the field school under the leadership of Dennis Murley, the sanctuary’s naturalist. Each session usually draws about a dozen participants. We spend most of our time on the water, learning about the natural and human history of the Cape’s marvelous bays, salt marshes, and freshwater ponds. There are also land-based activities, such as nature walks at the sanctuary and a slide show of my shorebird photography.

I enjoy these field schools because I get to learn almost as much as I get to teach — and I don’t have to assign grades!

Reflecting on Teachers

By this time, you are probably wondering what all this has to do with teaching visual communications, which is normally the topic of this column. Because I am currently away from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day teaching, I’ve had a few moments to reflect on the characteristics and personal attributes that make a great teacher. This has led me to think about great teachers I have known, either as a student or as a colleague.

I’m going to cast a wide net, taking in teachers such as Murley, but also professors I encountered at Columbia College in New York City and in graduate school at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. I believe that — no matter their specific area of expertise — all great teachers share certain qualities.

So, in this spirit of reflection, I am going to offer a list of nine characteristics and personal attributes I believe make a great teacher.

Models of Teaching

First, however, let’s consider three different philosophies or models of teaching. Any such consideration necessarily invokes the name Paulo Freire (1921–1997), a Brazilian educator best known for combining ideas about education with a call for intellectual and political liberation.

Although I am not going to discuss Freire’s work in detail, some of the models of teaching I describe are echoed in — and informed by — his theories. Also, please bear in mind that many teachers use a blend of philosophies or models, depending on their personal teaching style, the course material, the needs of the students, and the requirements of the institution in which they teach.

The first teaching model I call the Commodity Model. In this model, we who teach are the vendors of a commodity, i.e., knowledge, and our students are the consumers. As with any vendor-consumer relationship, there is a presumed exchange of value: students pay tuition and, in exchange, receive knowledge and, ultimately, a degree. The relationship is essentially one-way: the knowledge passes from teacher to student, with little or no interaction.

The second model I call the Collaborative Model. In this model, teacher and students work together to reach a predetermined set of goals, or learning outcomes. By the end of a specified time period, usually a semester, students are evaluated on the basis of how well they can accomplish X, Y, and Z — critique a novel, write a research paper, create a video project.

The third model I call the Critical Model. In this model, the emphasis is more on the development of critical thinking, rather than on the transfer of specific knowledge or the attainment of predetermined goals. In other words, rather than giving students the answers, a teacher using the Critical Model helps students acquire the skills and techniques for locating relevant data, evaluating it, and coming up with their own answers.

What Makes a Great Teacher?

In my opinion, a great teacher is one who combines the Collaborative and Critical models. Specifically, here are nine characteristics and personal attributes that I believe make a great teacher:

1. Respecting your students. Great teachers believe in the mission of education — that everyone has the potential to learn, and that learning is one of life’s great joys and privileges. Indeed, education can truly be a force for positive change in a world where much of what goes on seems to be headed in a negative direction.

2. Putting on a great show. Most great teachers are also great entertainers; they create a sense of excitement in the classroom. Following your syllabus is a must, but keeping your students guessing about how you are going to present the day’s material is a great way to capture their attention. Remember, this is a generation that is used to lots of stimulus, and nothing will make them zone out faster than a boring lecture. Mix it up — combine lectures with discussions and hands-on projects and group exercises. Use multimedia to reinforce learning visually and aurally.

3. Being prepared. This involves more than just having a lesson plan for the day. Being prepared means having contingency plans if things don’t go exactly as planned: the computer may crash, the guest speaker may be late, the video you were going to show may not be delivered on time, students may be absent or unprepared for their presentations, and on and on. Great teachers are also great problem solvers and magicians, able to produce a rabbit at the drop of a hat.

4. Leaving your personal problems at home. We all have bad days, but when you walk into your classroom, your students deserve your complete attention and focused energy — don’t waste their time by letting your personal life interfere with your professional responsibilities. Remember: your students have problems too, but you hope they’ll leave them at the classroom door, so you should do the same.

5. Having a sense of humor and using it. A little levity goes a long way. I’m not talking about telling jokes but about finding a lighter, brighter way to get your message across. Empathize with your students — most of them are trying hard to succeed, taking heavy course loads, and probably working either full or part time. Coming to class should be something they look forward to, not something they dread.

6. Having high but realistic expectations. There’s a fine line between setting the bar high and expecting professional-level work from students. This is especially true if you are teaching a subject that is also your career, such as writing or photography. Grading is a challenge, especially if you are grading creative work. Yes, you should reserve an A grade for truly outstanding work, but always keep in mind that your students are, for the most part, treading new ground and pushing the limits of their technical, creative, and artistic capabilities. There is joy in realizing you have inspired students to reach their full potential.

7. Encouraging participation. No student should feel afraid to express his or her opinion in class. One way to ensure this is to ask questions to which there are no right or wrong answers — and tell that to your students. Another way is to start a discussion by asking students to describe something — such as the objects in a photograph — rather than to analyze what that photograph means or to explain whether or not it is an effective photograph. You can then progress from description to analysis, and from analysis to critique. Don’t be afraid of silence; ask a question and then shut up — someone will eventually say something, and you’re off and running. When in doubt, call on students by name.

8. Being passionate about your profession. Teaching is a vocation as well as a profession. I’m willing to bet that great teachers feel they are called to teach, that teaching is what defines their personality and satisfies their soul.

9. Contributing to the knowledge base from which you teach. Being a great teacher means being a lifelong learner and sharing what you learn with your colleagues. There’s a reason why “publish or perish” is a mantra in higher education: colleges and universities place great weight on scholarship and professional development, in order to have teachers armed with the most current knowledge and the most up-to-date teaching methods.

When the fall semester starts on August 20 (yikes!), I’ll be pushing myself to attain at least some of these goals. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to getting out on the water with two new groups of kayakers and watching Dennis at work, teaching something he clearly loves. As always, please share your thoughts about, and experiences with, teaching and teachers — let’s keep the conversation going.

2 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: What Makes a Great Teacher?”

  1. Very good list.

    At the K-12 level, though, overuse of high-stakes standardized test scores force schools to rely heavily on the commodity model even though it's been proven by both research and personal experience to be the least effective.

  2. Professor Weintraub--I'm glad I got to see some of the thought processes behind your teaching methods. I have to say, I wish some of your colleagues would brush up on this stuff. Sometimes I feel undervalued as a student (thumb through a few select passages from Professor Ernest Wiggins' Reflections of a Native Son and you might see what I mean). Thanks for including this link.

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