WHAT IS THE SECRET TO GREAT TEACHING?



The semester is over or ending.   The academic year is over or ending.   It is a great time to pause and consider what you liked and what you didn’t like.   In sports, the teams post wins and losses which makes evaluation easy.  Teachers don’t have the luxury of such a clear-cut scoring process.  Some serious thought is necessary to know how well it all went.  How can it be improved?

In assessing the past year, don’t dwell on either the good or the bad.   Think about the year and celebrate the good stuff and consider what changes might have limited the bad stuff.  Most of us will have another chance to do this all again in the fall.  What can we take away from the past year that will help improve our teaching?   There is nothing to keep us from improving and now is the critical time to consider the changes that will lead to that improvement, especially as you get ready for next fall.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a video interview here on campus.  It was a PR piece.   Some of the questions dealt with my years at the University of Richmond.  Others had to do with my thoughts on teaching.   My favorite question was, “What is the secret to great teaching?”   I had some idea of what the questions were going to be so I had taken a few days to consider my answer.

Before I share my thoughts, I have two questions for you.

First, has anyone ever asked you that question?   Or, have you ever heard anyone directly address that question?   My point is that perhaps we don’t have more great teaching because we never really consider what that means.   Over the years, I have been to many conferences, presentations, and the like about various aspects of teaching, but I do not remember anyone saying, “Let’s talk about great teaching—what does it mean and how do you get there?”   If you have a pedagogy committee at your school, suggest they have that conversation.      

Second, is a more obvious question – how would you personally answer that question?  Before you read my response, how would you have answered a question about the secret to great teaching?   In truth, your opinion ought to be more important to you than hearing what I have to say.  

(This is a pause point while you think of your answer to the second question above.   If you are not willing to come up with an answer, that might indicate that you really don’t care about great teaching.)

Okay, now that you have come up with your answer, here is approximately what I had to say.  

“I am firmly convinced that the secret to great teaching is having great goals.  Great goals will not guarantee great teaching, but I don’t know how anyone can hope to be a great teacher without great goals.   I think too many people have average goals and then wonder why they are not great teachers.   If you have average goals (or possibly no goals), there is no chance of greatness.   I am 100 percent sure that it is impossible to be great without great goals.   In fact, I think that is a limitation that students also have.   They have average goals and are then disappointed when they earn average grades.  That is probably easier to see in our students than it is to see in ourselves.”  

“I write a blog about teaching and I occasionally write about my end-of-semester goals.   On the first day of class, at the middle of the semester, and at the end of the term, I am always shooting for one goal.  It never leaves my mind.   Here it is:   On the last day of the semester, I want to hear my students say, ‘I never thought I could learn so much.  I never thought I would think so deeply.  I never thought I could work so hard.  And it was fun.’  Whatever I accomplish as a teacher, I believe it is because I have those goals firmly in mind and try to make sure everything I do is directed toward achieving them.”

Okay, those are my goals because they work for me.  Between now and next fall, you should identify goals that work for you.  If you have not set great goals, then it is time to do so.   Here at the end of the semester, you have the opportunity to look back and consider what you accomplished.   What goals did you have and were they able to push you toward great teaching?   Before you consider changing your teaching, think about changing your goals.   How could you modify your goals for next fall to push you even closer to great teaching?

I guess that is the point of this essay.  How can you modify your goals to push you closer to great teaching?   It's a question that is worth repeating.

The topic of “great goals” is very interesting to me.  It just seems obvious that you cannot achieve greatness without developing goals that go beyond mediocre.  Start listening as people talk about their goals.

I read an article recently in the Wall Street Journal about Arsene Wenger, the manager of the Arsenal soccer team in London, a team that plays in the Premier League.   I know little about soccer as a sport but I do know that fans in Europe take their soccer (“football” as they would call it) seriously.   Wenger is retiring from the Arsenal team after a long and often legendary career.  

What I found interesting was that the article talked about his philosophy as a soccer manager, “I help others express what’s inside them.  I didn’t create anything.   My permanent battle in this job is to draw out what’s beautiful in man.”  

The whole idea works for every teacher but I really liked that last sentence.  Education often seems like Marine training where you want to work the students into exhaustion.  Wenger’s thoughts have a positive feel that is especially appealing to me.   Too often, this past semester, I found myself annoyed at students who would not live up to my extremely high standards.   Perhaps, I needed to think more about drawing out the best in them.   I’m not ready to abandon my “think, learn, work” goals but maybe they need some modification.  When the learning process is working perfectly, when a student is beginning to catch on, it truly is beautiful to behold.   I want more of that beauty.   And, I want to fully appreciate it when it happens.

So, even if I don’t change my goals, I am going to try paying more attention to the beautiful elements of being a teacher.   It is way too easy to stay annoyed at students who don’t always work as hard as I would wish.   Teachers do not have to be perpetually irritated.   Perhaps, as I tackle this job again in the fall, I will be better able to move toward great teaching if my goals push me to pay more attention to the beautiful side of this whole teaching process.   That is going to be an adjustment to my goals for the fall – to better see the beauty of being a college teacher.  

But, that is me and is not really relevant to you.   How are you going to modify your goals so they will be great enough to push you closer to great teaching?





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