Characteristics of a Good Teacher

I know one when I see one

Photo by Peter Fogden on Unsplash

The highest function of the teacher consists not so much in imparting knowledge as in stimulating the pupil in its love and pursuit. To know how to suggest is the art of teaching. ~ H.F. Amiel (Swiss philosopher)

I have been teaching in a research-centered university for over 45 years. I have also been extensively involved in efforts to increase the recognition and rewards for outstanding teaching. Alas, my quixotic quest to enhance the rewards for and support of teaching at a research-centered university has done little to change the system. But nevertheless, I persist!

Over these years, I have also conducted a number of teaching improvement workshops and conducted hundreds of peer evaluations of teaching. So, I have seen a lot of teaching, both good and breathtakingly bad. In ways both measurable and in non-descriptive, intuitive, inexplicable ways, I have come to sense who the good teacher is and who is the journeyman that merely shows up and makes a presentation. The difference is not so much what each knows, what information each has stored in her or his brain, or what knowledge each dispenses in the classroom. It is more what each brings or does not bring to the student as a human being. Being a good teacher is not about knowing stuff. Being a good teacher is a way of thinking, acting, caring and doing.

Good teachers are those who rise above the others with something extra. They are competent and know their subject, but do not identify so strongly with their discipline that they lose their humanity. They go beyond the mechanics of presentation, or organizing a class, writing lectures, being prepared, making up quizzes and exams, grading performance and showing up on time. They interplay on the mind, heart, and spirit, for the good teachers believe that teaching without love is both shallow and hollow, perhaps wrong but certainly meaningless.

Good teachers are “wholeness” teachers who realize that learning is not separated from other aspects of human activity. They are concerned with feelings and thoughts. They are concerned with the spirit and emotion of the student as well as the intellect, realizing that they are all interconnected and interacting parts of the same person. Good teachers believe that love and caring is good teaching and don’t let technology or technique substitute for caring and kindness. They believe that helping students is more important that stroking their own ego. They are more concerned with the learning styles of the students than their teaching style.

Good teachers come to the classroom as stimulants of learning rather than as barbiturates to keep students quiet. They are more concerned with the question of “who are you” rather than the statement of “I am the professor”. They are more concerned with the question “are you learning” rather than pontificating fact after fact about their subject matter. They earn respect rather than exercise authority and power. They care not only about their subject but also what goes on in the hearts and souls of each student. They listen more than they talk. They don’t proclaim their ideas, they help their students generate theirs. Their actions are designed to meet the needs of their students, not their own.

Good teachers are nurturers. They want all students to reach their potential. In their class, everyone belongs. No one is considered to be a loser. No one is worthless. They work their ass off to offer every student the opportunity to succeed. Their classes are filled by the enthusiastic spirit of humility, concern, trust, caring, kindness, encouragement, community, respect, challenge, growth and dignity. Their classes are filled with creativity, vision and imagination. Their classes are loving and nurturing worlds of adventure, growth, transformation and discovery.

Good teachers never live in a comfort zone. They are never satisfied with themselves. They are as demanding, perhaps more demanding, of themselves as they are of their students. They never stop working hard, never stop studying and learning, never stop reflecting and examining themselves, never feel that they can’t get better. They care about what goes on inside their heart and soul, and understand that they are not unending fountains of wisdom nor caretakers of knowledge. Boredom and complacency are not their companions. They leave the classroom every day convinced that they could have done a better job.

Good teachers get up excited each morning and can’t wait to get into the classroom. For good teachers, teaching is a calling, not a job. They refuse to be imprisoned in their own personal or professional ivory towers. They simply enjoy teaching and their students sense that. They enjoy associating with their students and getting to know them better every day. Unfortunately, many faculty members do not really like students and resent having to climb down out of their ivory tower and engage with them. Regardless of their knowledge and expertise, those individuals who don’t really like students will never be good teachers.

Good teachers are humble. For them, there are no sacred cows. (I’ve always said “sacred cows make the tastiest burgers”!) Good teachers welcome change because they welcome new challenges. They assume responsibility rather than point fingers of blame when something doesn’t work in class. They are sufficiently defined inwardly that they know how to say to students “I did a lousy job of explaining that concept, let me try again”. Good teachers don’t screw up and then try to bluff their way out of their screw up! They are not afraid to sacrifice a little pride for the sake of student learning and understanding.

Good teachers have a good sense of humor. They don’t take themselves or their subject matter too seriously. They aren’t afraid to engage in a little self-deprecating wit and make jokes at their own expense. I’ve found that an ounce or two of humor can help students understand and appreciate the class material better than several pounds of gravitas. A class without laughs to me is the equivalent of a day without sunshine!

Good teachers act the way they want their students to live, with self-respect and respect for others, to share values greater than the selfish, materialistic, competitive rat race. If a teacher wants the respect of students, then she/he needs to show respect to the students. And to insist that fellow students are likewise treated with respect. The classroom is a small community. Within the classroom community, the values that you would like for the students to carry forward into society should be the modus operandi.

Good teachers add to the stature of the student as a thinking, feeling, caring, contemplative person. They embark students on unending voyages of discovering new interests and powers within themselves. They understand the education is not just a preparation for a career, but for a meaningful life. A good teacher prepares students to dream big dreams, dreams not limited to the short period of time in the classroom, but the expansive, daring and timeless dreams of life beyond the classroom.

Good teachers are demanding but fair and kind. Some academics actually take great pride in being disliked by students. They wear their unpopularity with students and their “hard ass” reputation like a badge of honor. My observations over the years is that professors who adopt this arrogant and narcissistic attitude are usually covering up for their own inadequacies. A good teacher can most certainly be one with challenging academic rigor. Despite the general assumption that most students are lazy and dislike rigor and teachers who demand it, that has not been my experience. I am viewed as one of the teachers who has very high academic standards. But, paradoxically, I’ve found that most students want to be challenged. They just want fairness and professors who will help them learn and who are not condescending arrogant jerks.

Good teachers make teaching look easy. News flash: teaching is not easy! Good teachers, like accomplished athletes, musicians, dancers, or actors make teaching look easy. They make you think anyone could do that. Then you try to do it, fail and realize that teaching is hard. This is the art of the good teacher.

Old unreformed unf**kwithable professor with a rock & roll soul, still crazy after all these years and still running against the wind.

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