What makes a great teacher?

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?

11 thoughts on “What makes a great teacher?

  1. The great teachers are the ones that you can see a bit of your self in – maybe not your self today but someone you could be – someone that is inside you waiting to get out when you have the confidence and the opportunity to unleash.So for me – they are a bit mischievous, never thrown of course, they answer a superficial question with a deep question – and they are like a swan – they glide on the river but you never see their feet paddling purposefully where they want to be. Great teachers are role models – the impact is enduring – when they infect you and inspire you – pass it on – it has a snowball effect.Feedback sucks – we care so much about what we are doing – buts its not personal – let’s let Seth explain….  http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/05/how-else-are-you-supposed-to-take-it.htmlThanks for sharing Ana@jameslramsay

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  2. I’ve had a few great teachers in my life. And I think what I found very important is firstly that they truly and deeply understand what they are talking about, and are not afraid to not have an answer. What I mean by that is, that I think someone who really understands her subject, knows how to explain it on different levels and in different ways. I once had a teacher who could explain things in one way, and if you didn’t understand it, you were gladly invited to redo the course next year. Mind you, this was in secondary education. Also, if you really are an ‘expert’, you know that you cannot know everything. It’s good to acknowledge that, take the question and get back to it later, when you have found the answer.Other than that, I think listening is a great skill. The example of the drama class you mention is almost exactly what I mean. A great teacher knows hot to connect with the students in such a way that they ‘get it’. And that differs. All the time.Great post, again, Ana. Thanks.As a little encore: have you seen the new TED initiative, TED Ed: http://blog.ted.com/2012/03/12/introducing-ted-ed-short-lessons-for-teachers-and-students-to-spark-curiosity

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  3. The greatest teacher I’ve met in my Master is my current supervisor. She taught me one of the elective subjects and I was amazed with her style of teaching. Her lecture was always organized and well prepared. She explained more than the theory and she engaged us in thinking further. One of the best thing that I like about her is she always makes me feel good every time I meet her for discussion. I guess I do wish I can be like her one day. Both inspiring and encouraging.

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  4. Colin Carnall, now head of ExecEd at Cass and once of Henley told me that if you got top-scores when you taught you weren’t trying hard enough.  His view was that to make a difference you had to irrititation to a degree and to touch nerves…On the acting side, thanks for the kind words.  I always rememebr watching a Meatloaf interview ehre he was asked how he could like in such a mad way all his life.  His response was, that just like Alice Cooper, their personas on stage were just that, personas, and as soon as they stepped off stage they back to being normal people.

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  5. Really liked that post, James – thanks for sharing (it’s funny how Seth always puts it so well…).I never consciously thought of great teachers as someone I aspired to be, but I suppose it’s what happen(ed) at a very deep, unconscious level. Maybe that is why there is no such thing as THE great teacher, why it is subjective.Thanks, again for the post.

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  6. Eh, eh… I had one teacher who would explain things one way; if you did not understand, she would explain it again, exactly the same way, only a bit louder :-)The not knowing thing can backfire, I think. Yes, it is true that you can not know everything. But you can’t ‘come back to you later’ every time. It is a matter of detail like – is it 10% or 15%, you can come back to it later, or tell the student how to find the answer. For other types of questions, it may work really well to return the question to the class – somebody may know the answer. It is, again, about facilitating.Ted Ed looks really promising. I like the idea of animating the lessons. Really curious to see what will come out of it – you could do one about writing poetry (the technique)

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  7. Great to hear that your supervisor is so inspiring, Jennifer – it can be a nightmare when supervisor and student don’t really match ;-)Your comment about her making you feel good, reminded me of something else another colleague told me. She told me to always give feedback to students following a sandwich format: you start with something good, you identify what is wrong or needs improvement and, then, conclude on a positive note, again. I like this approach.

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  8. You are being too humble, David – I remember how you always got great scores in the feedback to your workshops (though you did manage to ruffle many feather, as well).

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  9. She did similar thing too. She makes me feel good that I’m on the right direction at first, so even if she criticize my error later, I just happily rethink about it and make necessary changes without feeling bad. However, it’s weird that the same supervisor makes my another peer feel bad (she told me so and she’s scared of meeting the supervisor). I guess how good is the teacher is really up to individual. One can never make everyone happy.

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