Thursday, December 11, 2008

What makes a great teacher?

Recently, ranked some top professors, and the one that topped the list was one I'd taken courses from.
He was a good professor, but I think what put him at the top of the list was his absurdly easy classes. And I'd say absurdly easy classes should be a negative factor, not a positive one.
And I started thinking.
What makes a truly great teacher?
An incomplete list:

1. Respect for students. One of my professors right now has some great skills as a teacher, but she's scary and mean, at least to a few of her students. I recently overheard one of the library staff refer to her as...
Oh. Right. G-rated blog. Let's just say I'm not alone in thinking this otherwise good professor has serious people issues.

2. True love of the subject. If the teacher's not excited about it, the students won't be either. Well, at least unless it's like the chastity lesson I gave in Gospel Essentials the other week. Maybe it's best for teachers not to get too excited about specific topics in certain situations...
I'm especially impressed with a teacher who can make an awful subject interesting (Mr. Kinsel (Math), Dr. Wood (chemistry), and Ted (chemistry/physics)--I'm looking at you).

3. Good communication skills. Don't let me get started with one of my current professors...a brilliant guy, but he has a hard time talking.

4. Organized. Again, another current professor (well, current except I took her final on Tuesday) has problems here.

5. Good knowledge of the subject. This one's for all those high school coaches who were there just for the sports, but had to teach anyway...some of you may know your stuff. Most of you don't. To be fair, the above-mentioned Ted is an exception, but he doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the coaching side of things. This also applies to the fifth grade teacher who told us to do a report on an animal and then told me I couldn't do it on snake because a snake's not an animal. Yeah. I realize it's fifth grade, but still...according to my mom, she later called a goose a duck. Not a bad teacher overall, but she needed some very basic-level assistance with animal identification.

6. They're demanding. This BYU professor? My education professors at UVSC? Definitely not demanding. Education requires work. If I'm not trying, I'm not learning. There is no way my kids will get the easiest teacher, even if that teacher does happen to be the most popular one. And kids need to be prepared for the real world. An easy education class is not adequate preparation for a classroom full of 35 hormone- and rage-filled teenagers. An informative yet ridiculously easy Mission Prep. class is not adequate preparation for the craziness of a mission.

7. They make you think. This is where CS Lewis is at his finest. I took institute from Thomas Griffith. He was my stake president at the time, and a good teacher. And one of the most thought-provoking teachers I've ever had. This was not a class that required work, as there was no grading. But it still required thought. He asked deep questions. I'm not entirely surprised that he's now a judge on the DC Court of Appeals--this nation's second highest court. I am surprised that he's scheduled to visit my little law school in a few months to speak--definitely exciting.

8. They do their best to make the material applicable to their students.

To be honest, I sometimes fell short in all of these areas as a teacher. I despised a couple of my students, I wasn't a big fan of some of the things I taught (cells, for example), I sometimes found it hard to say what I wanted to say, I sometimes wasn't as prepared as I should have been, and as a result was disorganized, and I didn't always know the subject as well as I should have (cells, again). And my class was probably a bit too easy.
I got better as time passed, and then life pulled me in a different direction.

Any other important attributes to consider?


Brentwell said...

That is a pretty good list of qualities that I would agree with. I don't expect to measure up when I teach. I would say one other quality is that the teacher expects a lot from their students. I learned a lot about presenting when Dr. Knutson at BYU gave me a failing grade on one presentation. He then took the time help me prepare for my second presentation.

Katrina said...

This is an excellent list and one I agree with wholeheartedly. When you mention easiness being an characteristic of popularity but not of good education, it reminds me particularly of one of the teachers for which I student taught. He was extremely popular--buddy-buddy with the students--but not a very good teacher overall. And when I took over his classes, the students tried to rebel because they didn't want to work, think, or turn assignments in on time. They weren't used to doing any of those things. The other teacher I student taught for, on the other hand, was completely opposite and I learned tons of things from her about how to be an effective teacher.

alison said...

I agree with the high expectations the most, because that was always the motivating factor for me personally. I think my teachers were just always very good, but I was always very good when they expected me to be.

The one teacher who took me aside to let me know the minute he first saw me in his class he expected me to fail...not such a good impression, I didn't learn anything from him at all...and he told me that after he didn't receive a paper from me. (I couldn't get it printed, yes at BYU, so I emailed it to him, but at the email he listed in the online directory and not the one on the syllabus.) That's definitely a no-no.

Woodine said...

Fantastic, I love the list! I have to agree about rigorous teachers - I think they (can) make some of the best teachers. Dr. Wood taught one of my classes and I worked very hard but that was by far one of the best I've ever taken. I also liked my O-chem teacher who most people hated because he was notoriously hard. But he was very available for help sessions, very willing to explain and re-explain. You just had to be willing to ask. And cells? Tim, I'm shocked! :) Ok, not really. Ask me about zoology or something and I'd give you a big ? .

I'd like to add one more qualification. Good teachers know how to use power point as a tool - not a crutch. I still shudder to think of some presentations I endured.

Tim said...

Some good points.
Telling a student that you expect them to fail, before the class even starts, is definitely showing a lack of respect for them.
Of course, telling a high school student "if you don't change things around drastically, you will not pass" is different...

JorgenMan said...

Good list. Re: #5, when I was in 6th grade, we had to draw a topo map of an imaginary country. My friend and I thought it would be cool if we had a big mountain in the center of the country that had a spiral shape, and then put a lake at the top with a river that spiraled all the way down the mountain, like a waterslide.

Upon seeing the spiral-shaped river, she said I couldn't have a river that flowed down and then back up. I tried for five minutes to explain that it wasn't flowing down and then up, it was flowing south and then north. She finally allowed me to keep the river, although I don't think she ever understood why it was okay.

caron said...

Aaron, was that who I think it was? Just wondering.
I agree with all points, Tim. I don't know if you would agree with me on my addition, but I think a footnote of being understanding of student's needs would also be a plus. Everyone has life happen outside of school/work/church or whatever that sometimes interferes. I had some professors that were nazi about getting assignments in on time with no exceptions, and sometimes life got in the way. Of course, students abusing the mercy of the professors doesn't help the situation.