WHAT MAKES A GOOD TEACHER?
In this essay I want to talk about ten of the qualities that make a good teacher. My method is absolutely unscientific. Readers who want to know what exerts say about good teaching should stop reading right now and open to a different page of Inspiring Teaching. Readers who want to know what Pete has noticed about good teaching are welcome to read on. My evidence is personal, memorial, observational, and narrow. I have known teachers in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas, England, and China. Like Henry David Thoreau, I refuse to apologize for writing so much about myself. There is, simply, no one else I know as well. My hope is that my readers will be inspired to think far less about what I have noticed makes a good teacher than about what they themselves have noticed.
NOTE: Abbreviated list chosen by Rick Reis. If you would like an electronic copy of all ten qualities described by Beidler just send an email to [email protected]] ——————————–
1. Good Teachers Really Want to Be Good Teachers
Good teachers try and try and try, and let students know they try. Just as we respect students who really try, even if they do not succeed in everything they do, so they will respect us, even if we are not as good as we want to be. And just as we will do almost anything to help a student who really wants to succeed, so they will help us to be good teachers if they sense that we are sincere in our efforts to succeed at teaching. Some things teachers can fake. Some things teachers must fake. We have, for example, to act our way into letting our students know that we can’t think of any place we would rather be at 8:10 on a Friday morning than in a class with them talking about the difference between a comma splice and a run-on sentence. An acting course is a good preparation for a life in the classroom because it shows us how to pretend. Our students probably know on some level that we would rather be across the street sipping a cup of Starbucks coffee than caged up with! 24 paste-faced first years who count on our joyous enthusiasm and enlivening wit to be the cup of Starbucks that will get them ready for their 9:10 class. But they will forgive our chicanery, even if they suspect that we are faking our joy. They will know it by the second day, however, if we don’t really want to be good teachers, and they will have trouble forgiving us for that. Wanting-really, truly, honestly wanting-to be a good teacher is being already more than halfway home.
2. Good Teachers Take Risks
They set themselves impossible goals, and then scramble to achieve them. If what they want to do is not quite the way it is usually done, they will risk doing it anyhow. Students like it when we take risks. One of my own favorite courses was a first-year writing course in which I ordered no writing textbook for the course. On the first day I announced, instead, that my students and I were going to spend a semester writing a short textbook on writing. It was, I said, to be an entirely upside-down course in which the students would write lots of essays, decide as a group which ones were best, and then try to determine in discussion what qualities the good ones had in common. Whenever we hit upon a principle that the good essays seemed to embody and that the weak papers did not, we would write it down.
Then we eventually worked our discovered principles into a little textbook that the students could take home with them. It was a risky course. It was built on a crazy no! tion that first-year college students in a required writing course could, first of all, tell good writing from less-good writing, and, second, that they could articulate the principles that made the good essays better. My students knew I was taking a risk in setting the course up that way, but because they knew that my risk was based on my own faith and trust in them, they wanted me-they wanted us-to succeed.
We teachers have something called academic freedom. Too many of us interpret that to mean the freedom from firing. I suggest that we should interpret it rather as the freedom to take chances in the classroom. I love taking risks. It keeps some excitement in what is, after all, a pretty placid profession. I like to try things that can fail. If there is no chance of failure, then success is meaningless. It is usually easy enough to get permission to take risks, because administrators usually like it when teachers organize interesting and unusual activities. For some risky activities it may be best not to ask permission, partly because the risks that good teachers take are not really all that risky, and partly because it is, after all, easier to get forgiveness than to get permission. Teachers who regularly take risks usually succeed, and the more they succeed the more they are permitted-even expected-to take risks the next time. Taking risks gives teachers a high tha! t is healthy for them and their students. It makes good teaching, good learning.
4. Good Teachers Never Have Enough Time
Just about all of the good teachers I have known are eternally busy. They work 80-100 hour weeks, including both Saturdays and Sundays. Their spouses and families complain, with good reason, that they rarely see them. The reward for all this busy-ness is more busy-ness. The good teachers draw the most students, get the most requests for letters of recommendation, work most diligently at grading papers, give the most office hours and are most frequently visited during those office hours, are most in demand for committee work, work hardest at class preparations, work hardest at learning their students’ names, take the time to give students counsel in areas that have nothing to do with specific courses, are most involved in professional activities off campus.
For good teachers the day is never done. While it does not follow that any teacher who keeps busy is a good teacher, the good teachers I know rarely have time to relax. The good teachers I know find that they are as busy teaching two courses as teaching three. They know that they do a much better job with the two courses than the three because they give more time to the individual students, but they also know that for a responsible teacher the work of good teaching expands to fill every moment they can give to it. They might well complain about how busy they are, but they rarely complain, partly because they don’t want to take the time to, partly because they don’t like whining. Actually, they seem rather to like being busy. To put it more accurately, they like helping students-singular and plural-and have not found many workable shortcuts to doing so.
7. Good Teachers Try to Keep Students-And Themselves-Off Balance
I have learned that when I am comfortable, complacent, and sure of myself I am not learning anything. The only time I learn something is when my comfort, my complacence, and my self-assurance are threatened. Part of my own strategy for getting through life, then, has been to keep myself, as much as possible, off balance. I loved being a student, but being a student meant walking into jungles where I was not sure my compass worked and didn’t know where the trails might lead or where the tigers lurked. I grew to like that temporary danger. I try to inject some danger into my own courses, if only to keep myself off balance. When I feel comfortable with a course and can predict how it will come out, I get bored; and when I get bored, I am boring. I try, then, to do all I can to keep myself learning more. I do that in part by putting myself in threatening situations.
A couple of decades ago, I developed a new teaching area-an area I had never had a course in when I was a student: Native American literature. It would have been more comfortable for me to continue with the old stuff I knew, but part of what I knew is that I detest stagnation. I rashly offered the department’s curriculum committee a new course. When they rashly accepted it, I was off balance, challenged by a new task in a new area. I now teach and publish in Native American literature regularly.
In 1988 I began to feel that I was growing complacent teaching the privileged students I have always taught at Lehigh University-mostly the children of upper middle class white families. It was getting too comfortable, too predictable. I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach for a year in the People’s Republic of China. When the appointment came through, I was scared, but I signed the papers and not long after went with my wife and four teenaged children to Chengdu in Sichuan Province to take up the teaching of writing and American literature to Chinese graduate students. I have never felt so unbalanced in my life-teaching students who could just barely understand me, even when I was not talking “too fast.” It was a challenge to teach such students to read the literature of a nation most of them had been taught to hate and to write papers in a language that was alien to them. And that was only part of the unbalance. The rest was riding my bicycle through streets the ! names of which I could not read, eating with chopsticks food that was almost always unrecognizable and often untranslatable because nothing quite like it grew in my native land. Never have I felt so unbalanced for so long a time, but never have I learned so much in so short a time.
I have noticed that good teachers try to keep their students off balance, forcing them to step into challenges that they are not at all sure they can handle. Good teachers push and challenge their students, jerking them into places where they feel uncomfortable, where they don’t know enough, where they cannot slide by on past knowledge or techniques. Good teachers, as soon as their students have mastered something, push their best students well past the edge of their comfort zone, striving to make them uncomfortable, to challenge their confidence so they can earn a new confidence.
9. Good Teachers Do Not Trust Student Evaluations
Neither do bad teachers. But there is a difference in their reasons for distrusting them. I have noticed that good teachers, when they get really good evaluations, don’t quite believe them. They focus instead on the one or two erratic evaluations that say something bad about them. They good teachers tend to trust only the negative evaluations: “I wonder what I did wrong. I suppose I went too fast, or perhaps I should have scheduled in another required conference after that second test. I wish I could apologize to them, or at least find out more about what I did wrong.” The not-so-good teachers also do not trust student evaluations, but they distrust them for difference reasons.
They tend to trust the positive evaluations but not the negative ones: “Those good evaluations are proof that I succeeded, that my methods and pace were just about right for these students. The others just fell behind because they were lazy, because they never bothered to read the book or stu! dy for the exams. Naturally they did not like my course because they put nothing into it. Besides, how can students judge good teaching, and anyhow, what do they know? Anyone can get good student evaluations by lowering their standards, being popular, and by pandering to the masses.” Good teachers tend to discount the positive evaluations, however numerous they may be; less-good teachers tend to discount the negative evaluations, however numerous they may be.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD TEACHER?