What Makes for a Good Teacher?

Readers might recall that this blog is not simply a blog about history, but about other things as well.  Being on sabbatical, I’ve tried not to think too much about the other things, such as life in the academy.  However, I will start blogging a little bit more about those issues as I slowly gear up for a return to the classroom in August 2011.

Although I’m on sabbatical, I was fortunate enough this year to be nominated for Professor of the Year at ASU.  It’s an award given out by ASU’s Parents Association.  I’ve been nominated twice before; and yes, it is an honor simply to be nominated, because the nomination process is a demanding one for the nominator.  That said, the process raises understandable questions.  How exactly does one define a good teacher?  What goes into good teaching?  How can one assess good teaching?  How do we distinguish between being a popular teacher and a good teacher?  Is someone a good teacher for some types of students and not for others?

I suspect that what makes a good teacher differs from teacher to teacher and student to student.  Moreover, in a classroom I can tell that different students think I’m a good teacher for different reasons, and those reasons tell me as much about the student as they do about me (or any other teacher).  You often see that when you visit such sites as “ratemyprofessor.com,” where students in a class or fresh from a class rush to post early impressions, some of which are very revealing about the student writing the evaluation.  My own impression is that over time students are better able to reflect upon what teachers taught them, and that the resulting evaluation is more informed and mature.  Moreover, while students gravitate to various sorts of teachers, it’s interesting to see what they make of that experience in the long run.

Assessing good teaching is difficult.  For example, I don’t know what to make of outcomes assessment, because that inevitably leads to teaching toward a test.  Moreover, unless you assess the state of knowledge when a student enters a class, you are hard-pressed to judge “value added” by a class, and measuring knowledge is not the same as measuring critical learning and thinking skills or writing, skills that are not so easily assessed through standardized tests.  Yet simply to assemble student impressions doesn’t always work, either.  I recall that at the University of Wisconsin, where teaching assistants as well as faculty were assessed, a certain French history graduate student would make sure that he gave high grades until the evaluations were in; then he’d bear down and come up with a range of grades that made him look demanding, while the scores made him look beloved.  The students felt betrayed, but it was too late (as the student in question is now a dean, I think administration, where people disappoint others on a fairly frequent basis, is a better place for him).  As a faculty member entrusted to hand out evaluations on a day I determine, I’m well aware that one can make decisions on the spur of the moment based upon who’s there (or not there) and time the evaluation in line with an assessment of what happened in the previously graded exercise (so, perhaps we’d better give out those evaluations before we return those terrible papers).  There are ways to address this, but most teacher evaluation is done by students who have yet to reflect on the class as a whole, and the process privileges short-term reactions from the immediate past.  I’ve seen fellow faculty members play with numbers, offering interpretations of quantitative scores that reflect their own prejudices.  So, for example, a “good” score can be interpreted as being a “good” teacher (good) or a “popular” teacher pandering to students or who’s easy (bad); a “bad” score is evidence that you are a terrible teacher (bad) or that you are demanding and strict (good).  Same goes for class grades.  High grades can be seen as a sign of a teacher inspiring students to do great work, or of inflated grades doled out by a teacher desperate to be loved; bad grades can document a demanding teacher or demonstrate a complete failure to motivate.  And I’m not even going to discuss “reputational grading,” in which a student gets what he or she has always gotten because, well, they are supposed to get that grade.  That’s a story for another time.

So … what do you think makes for good teaching?  How can we tell who is a good teacher?

4 thoughts on “What Makes for a Good Teacher?

  1. Kristilyn Baldwin March 30, 2011 / 8:29 pm

    Well, here are a few reasons why I think YOU are a good teacher. I may have told you this before, so forgive me if I am repeating myself. You have somehow mastered the ability to balance being my teacher with being my friend. Some teachers, like one who made the nomination list, fit in the “popular teacher” category. But the truth is as a student, I didn’t really LEARN anything from them. I don’t want you to give me an A because you like me. I want an A because I EARNED it. As a teacher, if you are more worried about being liked than teaching, we can tell and most students will exploit that to boost their GPA. A tell-tale sign that a teacher is the “friend type” is by how he/she wants the students to address them. You will always, or for at least the next decade, be “Dr. Simpson” to me…but I digress.
    On the extreme other side, are teachers who never know my name, and make it obvious that they could care less about me or anything other than a paycheck, their own research, or occasionally a student who may nominate them for an award or bring them prestige. When I’ve spent 20 min in a teacher’s office one day, and he doesn’t recognize me two days later, he is not a very good teacher. I don’t expect you to know my social security number, but at LEAST know my face.
    You are the perfect balance of both. I know if I get an A in your class, it is because I deserved it. I would never feel comfortable calling you by your first name (on purpose), but you know my first name, what my goals are, and have taken the time to find my academic strengths and weaknesses. You can tell when I’m stressed and give me caring advice about school, but also honest critizicm when I need it. I appreciate both. You are basically my teacher AND my friend, which means I will learn more from you than anyone. And isn’t that the true mark of a great teacher.
    I will say that some of the responsibility needs to go to the students. As a teacher you can’t help students who don’t care. My mom (a long time teacher) used to say “it’s like pushing a rope.” Having a student who wants to learn something and cares about being a good student gives a teacher the ability to be great. From my own experiences, I started noticing great teachers, once I actually started looking for them. And you are one of the best, so thank you. 🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 30, 2011 / 8:48 pm

      Okay, now I’m blushing. Thank you.

      Actually, you’re the second student of mine with whom I’ve been in communication today. The first? Isaiah Mustafa. You know who he is?

      Great things await you as well. 🙂

      • Kristilyn March 31, 2011 / 12:40 pm

        Wow. Now I’M blushing.

  2. James F. Epperson March 31, 2011 / 4:45 am

    Ms. Baldwin touched on a key point while making you blush—good teachers have to balance “being liked” with “doing their job.” I wanted my students to enjoy my lectures because if the lectures were something that engaged their synapses, they were more likely to learn the material. I tried to be fair, yet tough (but with a soft edge—I wasn’t mean); I insisted on people knowing the basics—students taking Calc II were expected to know Calc I and basic algebra. I wasn’t there to re-teach what you were already supposed to know. (My insistence on this point is the uniform reason some kids hated me with a passion.) I tried to be friendly and funny in the classroom (one common complaint was about my bad jokes and puns) and welcoming in my office. “Approachability” is important, especially in a subject like math.

    One of my proudest moments was when a former student, an engineer, came back to tell me how much he had hated certain material in a Differential Equations class, but when he got into some junior and senior engineering classes he discovered he was light years ahead of the other students, because the material in question was the bread-and-butter of engineering analyses, and I had insisted that he learn it. I figured I had earned my salary (such as it was) that semester.

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