How To Become A Great Teacher

My life is now officially complete.   I was mentioned recently in the Huffington Post.

Life will surely be downhill for me from here on out.


I have written about Ken Bain on this blog on a number of occasions.    He is author of What the Best College Teachers Do, a work that I have recommended to hundreds of teachers in my teaching presentations.   Several years ago, Dr. Bain spoke on our campus.   In the evening, he met with probably 75 faculty members.   During the program someone near the back of the room raised a hand and asked the direct question:   How do you become a great teacher?  Okay, the question that everyone really wanted to have answered was officially on the table.   What does a teacher need to do to become great?

Dr. Bain responded immediately with a response that went something like this:   “Oh, I can answer your question quite easily.   To become a great teacher, all you have to do is get your students to care about what you are teaching.”  

“All you have to do is get your students to care about what you are teaching.”   It sounds so simple but it can be so very difficult.

If you are teaching a course on Hamlet, a student who cares will allocate enough time to do the reading at a significant depth.   The student will check out related readings and consider their significance.  The student will pay attention in class, make comments, and ask questions.   In other words, the student will be fully engaged and do the work that is necessary to excel.   For that particular student, this class and professor will be outstanding and thought-provoking.

If a student is not enticed to care about Hamlet, the student will read (or scan) Cliff’s Notes or possibly watch one of the movie versions of the play.   The student will text during class and entirely miss the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.   Any papers will be completed with a half-hearted effort.   Although it is the same class, this student will find it boring and useless.

How much the student cares really is the key.  

As I wander around the country, I often hear faculty complaints about student apathy.

--“The students just don’t care.”
--“Why do they take the class if they don’t plan to do any work?”
--“They are not interested enough to do one bit more than is necessary.”

Great teachers rarely make those comments.

So, the question is not – how do you become a great teacher?    The real question is – how do you get your students to really care about the material?   (It is not coincidental that the two opening questions in my Financial Accounting textbook [written with C. J. Skender] are “What is financial accounting?” followed by “What makes Financial Accounting important?”   We wanted to build the concept of student caring into the material right from the start.)

Encouraging students to care about the material is a terribly complicated subject.   We could probably hold a week-long conference on that one challenge.   Obviously, we have all grown up in a system where “caring” was brought into education by the threat of a test and grades.   “You better learn this stuff or you are going to fail your test next week.”   Sounds like a haunted house warning at Halloween, doesn’t it?

I would argue that one of the problems with college education is that a lot of it is based on learning because of fear rather than developing a student who cares.

How can you get students to care about the material beyond simply threatening them with failing grades?    Here are a couple of thoughts.    This is not an all-inclusive list, just some random ideas.

1 – Communicate early and often. 
    a.   I start sending my students emails weeks before classes begin.  One of the things I tell them is “I truly believe this will be one of the most important classes you ever take in college.”   I want them to walk in on the first day with a sense of anticipation.   And, I want that feeling to be positive – there really is a potential benefit to be gained from learning this material.   Of course, then I have to back up my claim.
    b.   Whenever I see something in a movie, newspaper, the Internet, or television that relates to my course, I send a note to my students and describe why this news was relevant to them.   I really want to stretch the class beyond the four walls of the classroom.   One of my favorite comments is:   “before this semester began, you would not have understood what was written in that article but now you should understand it completely.   You are becoming educated.   Learning allows the world to open up to you.”
    c.   Whenever we talk about something in class that I think is especially important to them, I’ll drop them a quick email later and say “today we discussed X in class and here’s how this might actually prove to be beneficial to you at some point in life.”   Students often need you to make the connections for them, at least at first.   And, making connections is a skill you want to encourage.

2 – Keep the proper attitude in class.
    a.    I majored in accounting because I thoroughly enjoy it.   I try to share that interest with my students.   No one gets into college teaching because they hate the subject matter.   I hope to open that same window of interest to my students.   I do admit that there is a fine line between being enthusiastic and being obsessively geeky.   So, I try to share my excitement in small doses.
    b.   As I have written innumerable times on this blog, people love puzzles.   I try to present as much of my material as possible in the form of a puzzle.   Even students who hate accounting, enjoy puzzles.   If you work at it, everything you teach can be twisted into a puzzle.   Puzzles are so much more interesting to students than the straight conveyance of information.   Plus, digging out the solutions helps them develop their critical thinking skills.  
    c.   Students tend to resist caring about material that is boringly easy.    Students also tend to resist material that is so complex that is it beyond their reach.   For me, one of the true challenges of teaching is presenting material at a level that maximizes caring.   I believe material should be challenging without being impossible.   Work is required but that work offers success.   Most people like to be stretched as long as they know there is a reasonable chance of success.    

3 – Bend over backwards to be fair.   Student response to the perception that class is not fair is to stop caring.

    a.   Make sure the daily assignments are of an appropriate length and clearly germane to the learning process.   “That is more work than anyone could possibly do” is not what you want to hear too often.   “I spent hours on that assignment and it was never mentioned in any way” is a response that is likely to signal a future loss of caring.
    b.   Make sure that the tests and grading accomplish what you want them to accomplish.   For me, a student who understands the material should get a B; a student who understands the material extremely well should get an A.   I believe that is fair.   I think the students (deep in their hearts) believe that is fair.   If the testing process rewards students who did what you asked, more students will follow along.   If the testing process does not reward the students who did what you asked, don’t be surprised by a future lack of caring.  

You can get your students to care in many different ways.   How are you doing it now?   Is it working?   That thinking can help you become a great teacher.

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