What Stands Between You and Greatness

In my previous blog on this site, I provided some tips for becoming a great teacher. Not surprisingly, the question came up as to what constitutes great teaching. I think most of us probably have some fairly firm definition of “good teaching” but what is the next step up the ladder? What exactly do we mean by“great teaching?” If you describe someone as a great teacher, what characteristics are you describing?

Do we know what great teaching is? As I sometimes tell my students, “if you don’t know where you are going, then a road map won’t be of any help.”

One possibility is that we are all satisfied with being good teachers so we have no real reason to consider what comes next. There is no urgency. In your dreams, do you seek to be a good teacher or a great teacher? If you say“great teacher,” then you must have some definition in mind as to what that means.

As I often mention here, I teach at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond. My colleagues take teaching very seriously. So, I went to several of them recently and asked: “To you, what does ‘great teaching’ really mean?” I wanted to get some different ideas to mull over.

Below are some of the responses that I received. Look them over – consider what they have to say. (In case you are interested, my response is the last one on the list.)

Then, ask yourself: “For me, what does great teaching mean?” This question can take some thinking. Avoid a quick, flippant answer. Once you have identified what you believe constitutes great teaching, what would you have to do to achieve that level?

In teaching, what stands between you and greatness?

Here’s what I heard from several of my fellow teachers:

(1) - Great teaching accomplishes or exceeds instructor and institutional objectives, which ideally would focus on what students learn.

(2) - Great teaching is grounded in a thorough knowledge of a discipline, but it doesn't stop there. It calls that knowledge into question, and gives the students the tools to do the same.

Great teaching is transformative. It meets students where they are, but then it helps guide them to a place where they can take their education into their own hands, to where they become independent thinkers and seekers after knowledge. It gives them the tools to become life-long learners, rather than ending when the semester ends.

Great teaching is clear and focused, with achievable outcomes that are fairly assessed. That said, it may not bear fruit during the semester or even the college career of the student. (See "transformative," above.)

(3) - I don't know if I will actually answer your question, but I will share with you what I believe good teaching involves. Good teaching involves passion, creativity, and listening. It requires substance, an ability to challenge one to think, and the ability to motivate one to apply knowledge gained. The key element to good teaching is a motivated teacher. I am convinced that unmotivated teachers cultivate unmotivated students.

What's interesting is that I find it easier to tell you what bad teaching is. Hmmm, why is that?

(4) - A setting where students become actively engaged, probing, challenged, and at the end of the day, more interested in the subject than when they began. Great teaching would also include activities and outcomes that allow the Professor to clearly delineate the A, B, C, D, and F students. We could say that not all students have the same ability, but at a school like ours that is not necessarily the case. It is more likely not all students are motivated equally.

(5) - Great teaching creates great learning. I realize that's an inelegant sentence but it conveys what I believe. The best teacher inspires and helps a student to maximize their comprehension of a subject. The focus should always be on the student's learning.

(6) - My first thought to your question is, when I had a teacher who connected with me as a student, I had the joy of learning the topic AND I was inspired to learn more and more on my own. It made me have a desire to be inquisitive and want to dig and explore the topic even more. One of my best teachers was my 7th grade Earth Science teacher. She made studying rocks fascinating and to this day, I still want to pick up rocks, study them, and figure out how they were made. I think her joy in her topic was contagious. Obviously, my experience was at an earlier level, but I think it applies to all levels of schooling and all subjects.

(7) - First, let’s get rid of the “romanticized gentle mentor” image that constantly gets conjured up in the media. Further, let’s also admit that there is no one method of teaching that is best for all students nor for all teachers. Many of the people who I consider to be great teachers are not “cuddly” nor have a single style in which they teach.

Great teaching, in my opinion, gets the best results out of the students. These results are not simply test scores, but a greater maturity in the process of how to think about and solve problems possibly beyond the subject area. Great teachers/teaching make students better people. The difficult part about it is that great teaching may not be recognized by a student for a number of years and possibly only if the student is introspective enough to realize it. This is part of what makes teaching evaluations a flawed process. Your best teacher is not necessarily the one you enjoyed the most, but the one who got the most out of you.

(8) - Great teaching = Learning + Assessment = Convincing students to value (at least) the broad topic + convincing the instructor that the gained knowledge will provide some benefit to the students and the wellness of the world.

(9) What is a great teacher? At the end of the day, all teachers have to make that decision for themselves.

I have not thought about this for long so I might change my mind but my definition would be that a great teacher is one who assists most of his or her students in gaining a significantly deeper understanding of the subject matter. Accordingly, a teacher who got 100 percent of the students to learn a little might be a good teacher but not a great one. A teacher who gets a few students to gain a much deeper understanding might be a good teacher but not a great one. You have to influence a high percentage of the students and the increase in understanding must be eye-catching.

Popularity is not part of that definition.

Someone might ask how I measure the number who improve and the depth of improvement. Right now, I am not sure that I care. I am trying to set a theoretical goal for myself, not document a tenure decision.

Okay – now it is your turn. You have read all of these and they are quite interesting. How would you define Great Teaching? That’s what I would like to know.

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