Sunday morning, my wife informed me that there was an article in the newspaper that I was really going to find interesting.   My wife knows me well so I was immediately intrigued.   The article was by Charles F. Bryan, Jr. and was titled “What Makes Great Teachers Great?”  And, yes, I was certainly interested.

I found a lot about this essay to be very insightful.   I was especially interested to note that it was not written by a faculty member or by an administrator.   It was written by one of the leaders of a consulting firm.   Often, I believe, we get too close to college education to see it clearly.   I liked the idea here of having an outsider come in and study teaching with fresh eyes in order to provide his vision of what makes a great teacher.

Here, the author identifies seven common traits of great teaching.   So, I have an assignment for you.  Read about these traits and then give yourself a grade on how well you exemplify each of the traits.   A is Excellent, B is Good, C is Average, D is Poor and F is Failing.  

But don’t stop there.   Now, pretend that you are one of your current students – a typical member of your class.   For each of those seven traits, try to estimate what grade that student would give you.   Try to get into the student’s head and see the class from that perspective.

Average the two grades for each trait and make a list of the seven from highest to lowest.

Identify the two traits with the lowest overall average.  

Now you know where to spend some serious time if you (YOU) want to become a great teacher.   What can you do over the next 6-12 months to pull those two traits up?    It is always hard to improve if you don’t have a specific area or goal in mind.   “Try to become a better teacher” is such a generic goal as to be rather useless.     This exercise will direct your improvement to specific traits that need work as you move ever onward to become a great teacher.

(This article comes from the April 14, 2013, issue of The Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted with permission from the newspaper)

Last year, our consulting firm assisted Hampden-Sydney College in developing a new strategic plan. Blessed with a dedicated faculty anchored in the liberal arts, Hampden-Sydney places special emphasis on teaching excellence.

Teaching excellence can be defined many ways. One student’s favorite professor may be another’s nemesis. Yet there are certain teachers and college professors who are universally regarded as gifted in their craft.

A surprising number of people who have achieved success in life credit teachers with having opened their minds to new concepts and opportunities.  As such “teachers are the most important people in our society,” argues Pulitzer-Prize-winning author David McCullough.

What then constitutes a “great teacher?”

Our work at Hampden-Sydney made me particularly interested in that question.  As a result, I interviewed a dozen current and former students from various schools, asking them to describe their favorite teachers or professors.

What made those teachers so good at their craft? The answers varied, but certain common traits emerged, seven in all.

Great teachers seem to possess most of the following qualities:

(1) Love of Their Subject. They love what they teach. That love is obvious and contagious, often rubbing off on students. Many of their students say, for example, “I really didn’t like history until I took his class. Now I love it.”

(2) Vibrant.They are enthusiastic and energetic. Their classes are vibrant and lively, usually punctuated with regular give-and-take with students. Here the teaching process is a two-way street.

(3) Up-to-date.Great teachers have complete command of their subject based on current scholarship, and they know how to present it in organized and understandable ways. There are no yellowed or dog- eared lecture notes in their classes. If they teach in technical fields, they stay up-to-date with constantly changing technology.

(4) Creative.They are creative and help students look at things from different perspectives. They challenge assumptions and help students learn how to think analytically and critically, and to see things in a different light. Virginia’s Standard of Learning testing requirements stifle creative teaching in public schools, according to many critics. A former high school principal, however, told me that the great teachers he knows have adapted to the SOLs and still do a superb job in the classroom.

(5) Demanding.Great teachers usually are not easy teachers. They keep their students on their toes and do not pander to them. Yet they attempt to bring out the best in their students without badgering or humiliating them.

(6) Relevancy.They have the ability to make their subject relevant so that students can see a connection to their own lives and the world around them.

(7) Trust.Their credibility is unquestioned, and they are trusted by their students, who sense that the teacher is honest, forthright and fair.

Great teachers have the ability to change the lives of their students. A friend of mine was drifting aimlessly in college, not sure what she wanted to do. Then she took an elective course in accounting with no real motivation in mind. The professor presented the subject in such an interesting way that my friend was hooked and eventually became an executive at a major accounting firm.

Hampden-Sydney College President Christopher Howard recalls when he initially refused to read “Huckleberry Finn” in high school. As an African-American, he was convinced that it was a blatantly racist and degrading story. But Howard’s English teacher persuaded him to give it a try. Initially reluctant, much to his surprise he found it to be a compelling story that took a scathing look at entrenched attitudes, particularly bigotry. Howard says that because of his teacher’s insistence, he was given a lesson on how to judge for himself and apply critical thinking, both of which serve him well to this day.

David McCullough not only has the rare trait of being a hugely successful writer, but also is one of the most compelling public speakers of our time. He attributes his success at the podium to modeling himself after his art history professor at Yale, whose classes were always packed to overflowing.

In reviewing the traits associated with great teaching, it could be argued that those same characteristics can be applied to any number of jobs outside of the academic world. Whether in sales, law, personnel management, the ministry, the armed services and, yes, even accounting, having enthusiasm, love of one’s profession, integrity, creativity and the ability to motivate others can serve almost anyone well.

People in professions outside the classroom, especially those in leadership positions, can also have a positive influence on those around them, and in that respect, they can be great teachers, too.

The author, Charles F. Bryan Jr., Ph. D., is managing partner of Bryan & Jordan Consulting. He is also president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society.

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