What Makes a Great Teacher

I have to relate a brief conversation that happened this past week, and I must admit I’m rather sheepish about using it as an introduction here.  However, it truly is what got me started thinking about this subject.  I was walking out of a meeting with a couple of faculty members, one of whom I don’t know well at all.  He commented that he sees me in their building often, and I admitted that I teach there two days a week and that I like those classrooms better than ours.  He then said, “I try to sneak by and listen to your classes.  I’ve heard you’re a great teacher.”  Now, I don’t really think he eavesdrops on my classes, but it was nice of him to say that he’s heard good things about me.

Of course, his comment caused me to start thinking about what makes a great teacher.  I remembered a breakout group I was a part of more than a decade ago.  We were having a similar conversation when one of my colleagues from the education department confidently proclaimed, “We know what makes a great teacher.  We have a rubric.  I’ll go down to my office and get one.”  Thankfully, we stopped him or her (I don’t remember which, honestly) from doing so.  I brought up the point even then that, for every idea about great teaching someone could bring up, I could mention a teacher I had had who broke that rule quite clearly, which is what makes the conversation so difficult.

There’s another complicating factor in this discussion.  I’ve often wondered how much of being a great teacher is innate and how much can be taught.  I read an article this past week from someone who used to teach in an MFA program, and he argued that writing talent is largely innate.  He said that someone can have a bit of talent and work hard and be wildly successful, just as someone can squander talent and not be successful, but he firmly believed there were people he called the Real Deal, and there weren’t many of them.

I’m not sure if that’s true in teaching or not, but I think it might be true.  I’ve seen people work and work to try to become better teachers, and they just don’t really improve very much.  In some ways, it appears that it doesn’t come naturally to them.  They take ideas from people whom they have seen be quite successful or they read essays and articles full of good idea to improve their teaching, but it just never takes.  There seems to be something about great teachers that people can see one of the first times they step in front of a classroom.  They still have to improve, but there is something there that other people don’t have.

With all of that said, let me try to throw out a few ideas of what I think makes a great teacher, saying quite clearly that all of this (and I do mean all of it) is up for debate, even in my mind.  Still, here’s what I’m thinking right now, at least.

Great teachers are passionate.  I was meeting with a couple of colleagues this past week to discuss papers from graduating seniors (we have portfolios in our department, and we were talking about some of those).  When we were discussing one essay that wasn’t as strong as it could have been, one of the professors admitted that they (vague gender in pronoun on purpose) had taught the student, and they should never have let them (again) write on the subject.  It was too broad, and they should have helped the student narrow it down.  As they were talking, they were slapping papers on their knees and becoming quite animated.  They were frustrated still, even a couple of years after the class, that they had not helped that student see the problems with the topic.  They wanted the student to write the best paper possible, and they still felt frustrated that hadn’t happened.  That’s passion.  I could also talk about enthusiasm for the subject, but that tends to sound like we’re cheerleaders in class, and many of us are not.  However, in some way, students have to know we love our material; otherwise, they won’t care.

Great teachers love students.  This is one I’m not sure I really agree with.  I had a professor in graduate school who admitted to me after he was retired that he didn’t miss teaching at all.  He said he could still work out the arguments in his head, just as he did when he used to plan classes, so there was nothing to miss.  It’s clear he was leaving the students out of the equation.  However, I’ve seen too many bad teachers who clearly have no interest in the students that make me think this idea is true much more than it is false.  I’ve never understood why people become teachers if they don’t like students.  Granted, I don’t want to spend every weekend hanging out with students–their lives are quite different than mine, thankfully–but I do want to spend some time with them and get to know them as people.  And I look forward to hearing what they have to say in class.  I genuinely like them as people, which leads me to want to help them learn as best they can.

Great teachers are continually learning.  This is not an argument that all professors need to do research, just that all of us need to keep learning.  Given that I teach contemporary fiction, that means that I’m keeping up with who the new writers are, so I can share them with my students and possibly incorporate them into my classes.  I had a colleague who taught the same material over and over, never changing his approach or the works he taught (in a class like mine on contemporary literature, which seems to always be changing).  He taught well enough and students liked him, but his classes lacked an excitement that great teachers’ classes have.  Even someone teaching Shakespeare can keep up with the research and bring new ideas into the classroom.

Great teachers are always trying to be better teachers.  Out of all the colleagues I have whom I would think of as great teachers, none of them has settled in and said that they have nothing more to learn about teaching.  They are consistently learning about teaching and, more importantly, talking with their colleagues about teaching.  We must keep learning from each other, taking what works for us, to improve our pedagogy.  Such an approach can help all of us improve, no matter if there is something innate that makes great teachers or if we can all become so if we just keep working to improve.
I’m sure I’ve left out something (or many things), so feel free to chime in.


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