This weekend I have been reviewing the evaluation reports for the modules I taught last semester. Doing so always triggers soul searching reflections about what it means to be a good teacher.
Having spent so many years in education, I have seen my fair share of great educators. This is what I have learned over the years, from my own teachers, from colleagues and, of course, from the many students I met.
Great teachers inspire
My favourite teachers – the ones that left a lasting mark in my life – were those that inspired me to explore the topic beyond what was taught in the class.
These teachers did so much more than delivering the syllabus.
They showed me that what they were teaching was important for my life, the world… not just the exams.
For instance, my Economics teacher in high school – Mr Capitao – had a knack for illustrating the syllabus with the issues faced by the teenagers in his class. He got me to watch political debates on TV and read the economics column in the newspaper.
In addition to sparking an interest in the world beyond the classroom, great teachers inspire you to do something with what you are learning. To put it to practice.
My daughter’s science teacher is brilliant at this. She throws the girls a challenge and then steps back and lets them work out how to solve it. Here is an example of that approach.
Unfortunately, existing reward systems for both students and teachers tend to focus on short-term performance (i.e., exams), rather than long-term effects like these. That’s why being inspired by what you teach is, actually, the first step in being able to inspire others.
Once I went to a gym class on a lovely Saturday morning of what was a very dull summer. The instructor greeted us by saying ‘What are we all doing here, really? Wouldn’t you rather be outside in the sun, relaxing with a book and enjoying this lovely weather?’. It wasn’t very inspiring, was it?
They show how and tell why (not the other way around)
When I started teaching, a colleague showed me a piece of research stating that we learn mostly from self-discovery and interaction with others, not from lectures. I have since lost the reference, unfortunately – if you know it, please, please share it in the comments.
The implication of this research is that the best thing a teacher can do for the class is to hold back from teaching and, instead, facilitate discovery and interaction.
Here, I learned a lot from my former colleague Chris Dalton. After observing one of my MBA workshops, he noted how answering a student’s question by ‘giving the solution’ actually led to a two-way conversation between me and that student. It alienated the rest of the class. Instead, if I open up the discussion, everybody is engaged in finding the answer, learning (and retaining) much more in the process. His suggestions really changed how I approach classes.
This approach is particularly relevant for ‘sceptic’ audiences – those who do not like your subject, who think that it is not relevant for them or who think that you do not know what you are talking about. With such groups, I start with an exercise that captures the key issues – for instance, whether it makes sense to prioritise customers. Only in the end do I present the theory that brings all the issues raised together, in a framework or model.
The problem is that facilitating is much more difficult than lecturing. It is about interaction, it depends a lot on group dynamics and you never know quite how it will progress. The most useful piece of advice about this came from another former colleague, David James. He once told me that the best training he had had for his job was joining the drama club back at University. It taught him about improvisation and the need to read the audience. I find it really helpful to think about my sessions as stand-up routines (minus the humour). Thanks, David!
So, a great teacher showed the class how something works (or, rather, helped them discover how it works). Great. But for the module to have lasting effects, they now need to explain why. This is where expertise comes in – you can summarise all the research you read and that explains why things work that way, as well as what is still unknown.
The ‘how’ is relevant for that particular scenario, only. Knowing the ‘why’ gives students independence and allows them to apply the principles to a different scenario. I was reminded of this lesson in the ski slope, this winter.
My other half loves skiing and is quite good at it. I have always joined in, but never really enjoyed it. It wasn’t so much because I fell, but because I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong.
This year, however, I had a great ski instructor that changed that. Allen explained really well what was happening at each point – what was happening in your body, what was happening with the equipment, the effect of the physical conditions around you (gravity, temperature, etc)… he even acknowledged what our mental state might be at each point. Armed with this knowledge, I could decide what to do in different situations. It was very empowering. It changed how I feel about skiing. I can’t wait for the next winter
They are eager to improve
It does not matter how many years you have been teaching, or how many times you have taught a given subject, you still need to put in many hours to prepare for each session.
Sure, the core theories have not changed but there may be developments you need to keep abreast of. You also need to choose examples that are not only recent but also relevant for the students’ cultural context – the examples you use for a class where all students have been in the country for a while are very different from the ones you use for students that have arrived in the country weeks or days ago, for instance,
It’s very easy to become complacent. To think that you are an expert on the topic, or that you know the exercise inside out. But great teachers are humble – they know that there is always room for improvement on what you know and how you communicate what you know. Here is a great testimonial.
You can’t please everybody
Some years ago, I taught this class at LSE. When the feedback was submitted, one student wrote something along the lines of ‘I can not believe that this person was allowed to teach at such a prestigious institution. What a waste of my fees’.
I cried and cried and cried… until my better half pointed out that many others had written quite the opposite.
Some people will just not connect with you.
Maybe you are teaching a compulsory module that they did not want to take. Maybe they don’t even want to be in University. And you never know what is going on in their personal lives – One year after that upsetting feedback, a student contacted me to apologise for being so disruptive in my class (he really was!) and explained that he had been through an extremely difficult set of circumstances in his family life.
Mind you, it still hurts, every time I receive negative feedback…
What great teachers have you met in your life? What made them special?