Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Being a Good Teacher

This is by Peter C. Beidler. I got it from "Tomorrow's Professor," a mailing list maintained by Rick Reis of Stanford University. He's involved with the Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning . You can get good advice about teaching at their website; click here to e-mail a request to subscribe to "Tomorrow's Professor."

1. Good Teachers Really Want to Be Good Teachers

Good teachers try and try and try, and let
students know they try. Just as we respect
students who really try, even if they do not
succeed in everything they do, so they will
respect us, even if we are not as good as we want
to be. And just as we will do almost anything to
help a student who really wants to succeed, so
they will help us to be good teachers if they
sense that we are sincere in our efforts to
succeed at teaching. Some things teachers can
fake. Some things teachers must fake. We have,
for example, to act our way into letting our
students know that we can't think of any place we
would rather be at 8:10 on a Friday morning than
in a class with them talking about the difference
between a comma splice and a run-on sentence. An
acting course is a good preparation for a life in
the classroom because it shows us how to pretend.
Our students probably know on some level that we
would rather be across the street sipping a cup
of Starbucks coffee than caged up with 24
paste-faced first years who count on our joyous
enthusiasm and enlivening wit to be the cup of
Starbucks that will get them ready for their 9:10
class. But they will forgive our chicanery, even
if they suspect that we are faking our joy. They
will know it by the second day, however, if we
don't really want to be good teachers, and they
will have trouble forgiving us for that.
Wanting-really, truly, honestly wanting-to be a
good teacher is being already more than halfway

2. Good Teachers Take Risks

They set themselves impossible goals, and then
scramble to achieve them. If what they want to
do is not quite the way it is usually done, they
will risk doing it anyhow. Students like it when
we take risks. One of my own favorite courses
was a first-year writing course in which I
ordered no writing textbook for the course. On
the first day I announced, instead, that my
students and I were going to spend a semester
writing a short textbook on writing. It was, I
said, to be an entirely upside-down course in
which the students would write lots of essays,
decide as a group which ones were best, and then
try to determine in discussion what qualities the
good ones had in common. Whenever we hit upon a
principle that the good essays seemed to embody
and that the weak papers did not, we would write
it down. Then we eventually worked our
discovered principles into a little textbook that
the students could take home with them. It was a
risky course. It was built on a crazy notion
that first-year college students in a required
writing course could, first of all, tell good
writing from less-good writing, and, second, that
they could articulate the principles that made
the good essays better. My students knew I was
taking a risk in setting the course up that way,
but because they knew that my risk was based on
my own faith and trust in them, they wanted
me-they wanted us-to succeed.

We teachers have something called academic
freedom. Too many of us interpret that to mean
the freedom from firing. I suggest that we
should interpret it rather as the freedom to take
chances in the classroom. I love taking risks.
It keeps some excitement in what is, after all, a
pretty placid profession. I like to try things
that can fail. If there is no chance of failure,
then success is meaningless. It is usually easy
enough to get permission to take risks, because
administrators usually like it when teachers
organize interesting and unusual activities. For
some risky activities it may be best not to ask
permission, partly because the risks that good
teachers take are not really all that risky, and
partly because it is, after all, easier to get
forgiveness than to get permission. Teachers who
regularly take risks usually succeed, and the
more they succeed the more they are
permitted-even expected-to take risks the next
time. Taking risks gives teachers a high that is
healthy for them and their students. It makes
good teaching, good learning.

4. Good Teachers Never Have Enough Time

Just about all of the good teachers I have known
are eternally busy. They work 80-100 hour weeks,
including both Saturdays and Sundays. Their
spouses and families complain, with good reason,
that they rarely see them. The reward for all
this busy-ness is more busy-ness. The good
teachers draw the most students, get the most
requests for letters of recommendation, work most
diligently at grading papers, give the most
office hours and are most frequently visited
during those office hours, are most in demand for
committee work, work hardest at class
preparations, work hardest at learning their
students' names, take the time to give students
counsel in areas that have nothing to do with
specific courses, are most involved in
professional activities off campus.

For good teachers the day is never done. While
it does not follow that any teacher who keeps
busy is a good teacher, the good teachers I know
rarely have time to relax. The good teachers I
know find that they are as busy teaching two
courses as teaching three. They know that they
do a much better job with the two courses than
the three because they give more time to the
individual students, but they also know that for
a responsible teacher the work of good teaching
expands to fill every moment they can give to it.
They might well complain about how busy they are,
but they rarely complain, partly because they
don't want to take the time to, partly because
they don't like whining. Actually, they seem
rather to like being busy. To put it more
accurately, they like helping students-singular
and plural-and have not found many workable
shortcuts to doing so.

7. Good Teachers Try to Keep Students-And Themselves-Off Balance

I have learned that when I am comfortable,
complacent, and sure of myself I am not learning
anything. The only time I learn something is
when my comfort, my complacence, and my
self-assurance are threatened. Part of my own
strategy for getting through life, then, has been
to keep myself, as much as possible, off balance.
I loved being a student, but being a student
meant walking into jungles where I was not sure
my compass worked and didn't know where the
trails might lead or where the tigers lurked. I
grew to like that temporary danger. I try to
inject some danger into my own courses, if only
to keep myself off balance. When I feel
comfortable with a course and can predict how it
will come out, I get bored; and when I get bored,
I am boring. I try, then, to do all I can to
keep myself learning more. I do that in part by
putting myself in threatening situations.

A couple of decades ago, I developed a new
teaching area-an area I had never had a course in
when I was a student: Native American literature.
It would have been more comfortable for me to
continue with the old stuff I knew, but part of
what I knew is that I detest stagnation. I
rashly offered the department's curriculum
committee a new course. When they rashly
accepted it, I was off balance, challenged by a
new task in a new area. I now teach and publish
in Native American literature regularly.

In 1988 I began to feel that I was growing
complacent teaching the privileged students I
have always taught at Lehigh University-mostly
the children of upper middle class white
families. It was getting too comfortable, too
predictable. I applied for a Fulbright grant to
teach for a year in the People's Republic of
China. When the appointment came through, I was
scared, but I signed the papers and not long
after went with my wife and four teenaged
children to Chengdu in Sichuan Province to take
up the teaching of writing and American
literature to Chinese graduate students. I have
never felt so unbalanced in my life-teaching
students who could just barely understand me,
even when I was not talking "too fast." It was a
challenge to teach such students to read the
literature of a nation most of them had been
taught to hate and to write papers in a language
that was alien to them. And that was only part
of the unbalance. The rest was riding my bicycle
through streets the names of which I could not
read, eating with chopsticks food that was almost
always unrecognizable and often untranslatable
because nothing quite like it grew in my native
land. Never have I felt so unbalanced for so
long a time, but never have I learned so much in
so short a time.

I have noticed that good teachers try to keep
their students off balance, forcing them to step
into challenges that they are not at all sure
they can handle. Good teachers push and
challenge their students, jerking them into
places where they feel uncomfortable, where they
don't know enough, where they cannot slide by on
past knowledge or techniques. Good teachers, as
soon as their students have mastered something,
push their best students well past the edge of
their comfort zone, striving to make them
uncomfortable, to challenge their confidence so
they can earn a new confidence.

9. Good Teachers Do Not Trust Student Evaluations

Neither do bad teachers. But there is a
difference in their reasons for distrusting them.
I have noticed that good teachers, when they get
really good evaluations, don't quite believe
them. They focus instead on the one or two
erratic evaluations that say something bad about
them. They good teachers tend to trust only the
negative evaluations: "I wonder what I did wrong.
I suppose I went too fast, or perhaps I should
have scheduled in another required conference
after that second test. I wish I could apologize
to them, or at least find out more about what I
did wrong." The not-so-good teachers also do not
trust student evaluations, but they distrust them
for difference reasons. They tend to trust the
positive evaluations but not the negative ones:
"Those good evaluations are proof that I
succeeded, that my methods and pace were just
about right for these students. The others just
fell behind because they were lazy, because they
never bothered to read the book or study for the
exams. Naturally they did not like my course
because they put nothing into it. Besides, how
can students judge good teaching, and anyhow,
what do they know? Anyone can get good student
evaluations by lowering their standards, being
popular, and by pandering to the masses." Good
teachers tend to discount the positive
evaluations, however numerous they may be;
less-good teachers tend to discount the negative
evaluations, however numerous they may be.

10. Good Teachers Listen to Their Students
Shortly after I read Professor Levi's statement
that no one has ever defined what makes a good
teacher, I asked the students in my undergraduate
Chaucer course at Baylor University (where I was
a visiting professor during 1995-96), to write a
sentence or two about what, in their own
experience, makes a good teacher. The responses
ranged widely, but I sorted through the pieces of
paper on which they wrote them and put them in
different piles. Then I combined the piles into
ones that seemed to be generically related. Then
I combined the piles into ones that seemed to be
generically related. Three quarters of their
responses fell into two piles. The first of
those I call the "A" pile, the second I call the
"E" pile.

In the "A" pile I found words like "accessible,"
"available," and "approachable." Here are some of
the sentences they wrote in response to my
question, "What makes a good teacher?" I have
edited them slightly, mostly to put them into
more parallel constructions:

Good teachers

are available to assist students with
questions on the subject, and they show concern.

do not have a lofty, standoffish attitude.

can interact with a student on an individual basis.

want to know each individual student.

give time, effort, and attention to their students.

are personable, on your side.

are willing to be a friend to students.

are actually interested in the students.

are actively involved with their students.

are first friends, then educators. The
friend encourages, supports, and understands;
the educator teaches, challenges, and spurs the student on.

In the "E" pile I found words like
"enthusiastic," "energetic," "excited":

Good teachers

love what they teach and convey that love to the class.

have both an enthusiasm for and an
encyclopedic knowledge of the subject.

have such an obvious enthusiasm for what
they do that it is contagious and their
students pick up on it.

have a desire to learn, and for others
to learn, all of the exciting things they have

are obviously excited about teaching.
When a teacher enjoys teaching, it is usually
obvious, and that enjoyment is passed on to the
students. The classes I've had with teachers who
loved the subject they were teaching are the ones
I've enjoyed the most, and the ones I've been the
most eager to learn in. A teacher who isn't
enthusiastic can ruin even the most fascinating
of subjects.

These students are English majors at a Christian
university in Texas. Their answers might well
not ring as true for computer science majors at
MIT in Massachusetts. The point is not that all
good teachers must be available to their students
and enthusiastic about what they teach-though
that is surely not bad advice for anyone aspiring
to be a good teacher. The point is that good
teachers listen to what their students try to
tell them about what makes a good teacher.

Hey, I've done it! Good teachers are those who
want to be good teachers, who take risks, who
have a positive attitude, who never have enough
time, who think of teaching as a form of
parenting, who try to give students confidence at
the same time that they push them off balance,
who motivate by working within the students'
incentive systems, who do not trust student
evaluations, and who listen to students. Who
says no one has ever defined what makes a good

But wait. The trouble with good teachers is
that, finally, they won't be contained in a
corral labeled "good teachers." The trouble with
exciting teachers is that they are almost always
mavericks, trotting blithely off into some
distant sunset where no one can brand them. The
trouble with inspiring teachers is that they
won't stay put long enough to be measured,
perhaps because they know that if they did they
would be expiring teachers.