Joe’s Top Ten List

This past Thursday, I had the great good fortune to lead a 3 ½ hour discussion of teaching at the New Faculty Seminar put on by the Virginia Community College System.   The VCCS had about 150 folks there who had joined their teaching ranks in the last year or so.   We spent our time together chatting about how to become a better college teacher.

Whenever I lead this type of discussion, I always like to give the participants something at the end that will keep the thought process moving forward even after we have parted.   Here is what I typed on Wednesday night and then distributed to these folks after our time together on Thursday.


One of my favorite class assignments is to ask my students to read a chapter and pick the top 5 or 10 things they found important in the material.   I think that does a lot for them.   It forces them to think more deeply about the subject as they read.   It also requires them to make an evaluation, something that is not often done in education.   What part of this material was really most important?   They have to do some thinking and make some judgments.

Then, I will give them my countdown of what I thought were the most important parts of the reading.   My challenge to them is to compare my list to their list and figure out why mine had some differences (or justify why their list was actually better).   So, on November 1, we are going to spend 3 ½ hours together talking about becoming a better teacher.   Before you get too far away from this session, sit down and make a list of the most important things we discuss.   Then, pick your top 10 and rank them.   I want you to really consider what was most significant factor in your goal of becoming a better teacher.  

I have made my list below.   Compare your list to my list and see what you think.   In fact, if you go out tonight with other folks from the session, pick a group top 10.   It would be a worthwhile exercise, a great step toward being a better teacher on Monday when you return to your home school.   If you think my list is messed up in some way, let me know.   You can always send me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.eduand explain why my judgment is a bit faulty (I’m getting old – I have an excuse).  

I don’t know exactly what we will get covered on Thursday but this is based on my best guess as of Wednesday.

NUMBER 12(Okay, I lied about a Top Ten list.   I just couldn’t get the number down below twelve.)    REMEMBER THAT WE ALL NEED MOTIVATION AND INSPIRATION.   I gave you a quote from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides as a celebration of teaching.   Occasionally, it is easy to get down and depressed when we teach.   Students never quite do what we want them to do.   I don’t think you should ignore your own need for inspiration.   Talk with other teachers about their best days in class.   Or, keep a list of student evaluations that talk about how much you have helped them.   Read those now and then to remind yourself of why you got into this business.

NUMBER 11.   NEVER QUIT THINKING ABOUT YOUR TEACHING.    As our quote from Fortune magazine said, when learning a new skill, most people get good at first and then stop improving.   However, a few continue to get better and go on to greatness.   I’m convinced you will stop growing when you stop thinking about your classes and how you can make things go better.   I’m also convinced that when you have a bad day or a “bad” class that a good response is to sit quietly and just think what is happening and how you can turn things around.  

NUMBER 10.   BE AMBITIOUS.    The best teachers have a fire burning in their belly that pushes them to be great.   If you are satisfied with average, you’ll never be more than average.   The world needs better teachers.   The world needs for you to be a better teacher.   Make that a passion in your life.

NUMBER 9.    DON’T FORGET THE 50-50 RULE.   Almost every teacher talks too much.   Students prefer to sit and be passive and spoon fed.   Don’t let them pull that trick.   Make them talk.   If you talk, the class quickly becomes a conveyance of “stuff” with student thinking going out the window.   The goal should always be that you never do more than half of the talking in any class.   Above that, the quality of learning goes down.

NUMBER 8.   ARE YOU A FOOTBALL COACH OR A SCOUT LEADER?   There are two ways to motivate students.   You either push them or encourage them.   Great teachers are one or the other.   You cannot ignore student motivation.   Figure out how you are most comfortable providing that motivation.

NUMBER 7.   KNOW WHAT YOU WANT ON YOUR TOMBSTONE.    I obviously like the idea that I am judged by my students to be “the scariest prof” but also “the most caring.”    That is how I would like to be remembered.    Once I realized that, it has influenced my teaching.   I didn’t want to be remembered as “most boring” or “most confusing” or “funniest.”   I really want to push my students as hard as I can (enough to scare them or, at least, keep them on their toes) but also have them realize that I was doing it solely because I cared about them.   I want that student response.   Ask yourself what you would like for students to write on your tombstone.   It will influence the way you teach.

NUMBER 6.   A MEANS EXCELLENT.   I think grade inflation has had a horrible impact on college education.   Students have come to believe that they deserve a good grade just for breathing and don’t deserve to fail no matter how poorly they do.   If that is the teacher’s attitude, there is no reason at all for a student to work very hard or think very deeply.   I know it can make you feel like a tyrant but if you really care about the students, you want them to learn.   Set a high (but fair) standard and let them know that standard right from the start.

NUMBER 5.   PREPARATION FOR CLASS IS A REAL KEY FOR LEARNING.   If you can get your students to walk in to class well prepared each day, everything goes so much better.  If they are not prepared, all they can really do is sit and take notes and fall back on memorization.   Always think about how you can improve their level of class preparation.   That alone will create a much better class and learning environment.

NUMBER 4.   AFTER THE SEMESTER, ASK YOUR STUDENTS TO TELL YOU HOW THEY MADE AN A.   This allows you to pat your best students on the back.   They will love you for that.   It also helps you evaluate how you are doing in each class.   And, you can use these written responses to guide your next group of students.   One of the best ways to improve a new class is to let them know what it takes to do well.  Getting previous students to explain “the secrets” of how they made an A puts out the message loud and clear to the next group.

NUMBER 3.   THE WAY YOU TEST IS THE WAY THEY WILL LEARN.   If you ask test questions that focus on memorization, your students will do no more than memorize.   If you want them to think deeper, you have to ask questions that will require that depth of knowledge.   Try open book tests; you’ll write better questions and the students will be forced to think at a deeper level.

NUMBER 2.   BE SURE TO KNOW YOUR FLY-ON-THE-WALL PHILOSOPHY.   What you want to hear from your students on the last day of class should guide everything you do for the entire semester.   Don’t worry so much about any one day; worry about getting them to achieve your goals by the final day.   Figure out what you want your students to say about the experience on the last class and then use that to help you to design and focus each assignment.

NUMBER 1.   BY NOVEMBER 1, 2013, SHOOT TO BE 5 PERCENT BETTER AS A TEACHER.   To become great, you must continue to improve.   No one gets great overnight.   Set a reasonable goal and then work to make sure you feel you have achieved that goal over the next year.   You can’t measure it but you’ll know if it happens.   That’s the first step toward greatness.

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