Good Teachers on Good Teaching
asking people right and left what constitutes good teaching, so we
thought we’d better ask those who’ve had some experience
at it—our own faculty.
Professors from across the disciplines
answered our query, "What do you think makes a good teacher?"
The Air We Breathe
When I was a child, it was elaborate stories involving my dolls. When
I was an adolescent, it was figuring out my next sewing project.
When I was in graduate school, it was planning my gardens. Now, it
What is “it”? The object of my contemplation
during those moments in the day when the behavior in which I am engaging
or less automatic and the chances of my thoughts being interrupted
are minimal—driving my car, walking across campus, taking a shower.
During those moments, I might experience a “pedagogical breakthrough,” such
as solving a perplexing advising issue or developing a new method for
teaching a difficult concept.
That my thoughts now tend to turn to
teaching is indicative of how central being a teacher becomes to one’s
identity, especially at an institution like St. Law-rence. As one friend
put it, faculty
at St. Lawrence think about and talk about teaching so often that it
is part of the air we breathe. Certainly teachers are not the only
professionals about whom this is true; however, what that means for
how we view the world is probably quite different. We scan our environment
for pedagogy. Might that be a good example of this or that phenomenon?
I were to make this change to the exercise, might it push their critical
thinking a bit further? Hmmm… Would this
simulation work as a way to teach the impact of that variable? Hmmm…
would never suggest that being all-consumed with one’s teaching
is necessary to be a good teacher. Being all-consumed with anything
is probably not a good state of being. But just like being a mother,
a wife, a friend, a daughter, and a sister makes me who I am, so does
being a teacher. And having that role means that I see the world a
certain way—through the eyes of a teacher. Maybe I can use this
example to teach about the power of roles on our behavior? Hmmm…
Associate Professor of Psychology
Uncover the Material
We first met as new graduate students at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst
in August of 1975. That first day, we were assigned offices next to
each other and given our (surprise) teaching assignments for courses
starting the next morning. We have, literally, been talking to each
other about teaching since the first day we met. Here are some “best
teaching practices” that have been part of those discussions
over the years.
* Learn the students’ names as quickly as possible, and call
students by name. They are far more likely to come to class and be
motivated to do the work if they know we are paying attention.
* Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Try to grade at least one thing from
every student every week. This requires the students to stay on top
of the material in the course, and enables us to know what the students
understand and what they find difficult.
* Be absolutely clear about expectations. Most students will rise
to meet the challenge if they understand exactly what is expected of
* Prepare carefully. Probably 90% of effective teaching takes place
outside the classroom. The extra time spent coming up with that great
example really is worth it.
* Use a variety of learning/teaching techniques in every class. We
need to try to reach students with many different learning styles.
And it is boring otherwise, for us and for our students.
* Use technology effectively. It can be an incredible tool for communicating,
motivating and illustrating.
* Teach the students, not just the discipline. A relevant quote reminds
us that “It’s more important to uncover the material than
to cover it.” The ultimate measure of teaching success is whether
or not the students learn.
* Enjoy class time! Smile. If we’re not happy to be there, how
can we expect the students to be?
* Treat every student with respect
as an individual. It helps to imagine that each student is the son
or daughter of a good friend. Enjoy the
students. They are terrific.
* After 28 years of teaching and of talking to each other about teaching,
we still find that there is lots to talk about. We’re still working
on getting the ideas listed above right and developing the many other
facets that are important in the complex task of teaching. It’s
a great job and we’re happy to keep working at it!
Robin H. Lock, Jack and Sylvia Burry
Professor of Statistics
Patti Frazer Lock, Professor of Mathematics
and Chair, Department of Mathematics,
Computer Science, and Statistics
One characteristic that is crucial to good teaching is the ability
to listen carefully to the students, and understand where they are,
so that we, as teachers, can meaningfully and effectively connect with
them. When we first start teaching, it is all too easy to start from
where we are--which can be perceived by the students as a strange and
alien place! I have found it a much harder challenge than I expected
to gain a better understanding of where the students are.
I have developed, to help me in this process, is to require my students
to bring a question to each class on a 3x5 card. These
questions are supposed to be about the material that we are studying,
so they can be about the reading due that day, or about issues lingering
from the previous class.
I collect these at the beginning of class
and read through them right away, to get a realistic sense of what
the students themselves found
most puzzling or most interesting. While I always have my own outline
of what I hope to cover, I adapt this outline, if necessary, to address
the students’ questions and concerns. Sometimes I organize their
questions in piles that reflect my own outline, and pause to read the
relevant set of questions when I get to that place in my outline. Other
times, especially in smaller, discussion-based classes, I read all
of the questions aloud at the beginning of class and use those questions
to launch discussion.
I learn a lot about the students from these questions--how
they think, what kinds of topics tend to attract their attention,
and the learning
strategies they adopt if they find a reading too difficult. My hope
is also that this technique helps them learn that asking good questions
is a very powerful technique for more effective learning, and helps
them to make the connections between what they care about in their
lives outside the classroom and what they are studying in their classes.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Opportunity and Responsibility
Teaching, for me, is an opportunity and a responsibility to help shape
and add meaningful purpose to people’s lives.
For many outstanding
teachers I have had the privilege of working with, both at St. Lawrence
Univer-sity and elsewhere, the essence of good
teaching can be found in several multidimensional tools and methods.
For example, the overwhelming majority of these individuals firmly
believe that a mastery and love of the subject, coupled with careful
preparation of the material, is key to a successful teaching career.
Alone, however, these do not ensure good teaching. The more personal
dimension of teaching—the domain where the intangibles compete
with the tangibles for importance—is equally critical. Here,
interaction with students rises to the very top of the list because
it opens windows for both teachers and students to understand the world
from one another’s perspectives. For the teacher, this opening
offers a variety of opportunities for empowering students to be active
learners both in and out of the classroom. This interaction is also
essential for students to feel both respected and empowered to learn.
teachers invariably have a positive attitude toward teaching, expressed
in the classroom through various overt signals like smiling,
enthusiasm, and passion for the teaching and learning process, but
also through listening and talking respectfully. All of these signals
are indispensable for creating an enabling environment for learning
Many of our most respected colleagues consciously make students feel
that they are at the very center of the professor’s work. They
know all their students’ names, give them extra time after class
and, whenever possible, have an open-door policy to allow expanded
opportunities for consultation even outside office hours.
Many of these
outstanding colleagues are also known for their flexibility—they
are not wedded too rigidly to the course outline and sense when the
class is having difficulty plowing through a particularly dense portion
of the syllabus. They are also “down to earth” or “laid
back,” not afraid to balance theoretical explanations with examples
drawn from either the students’ or their own experiences.
have learned much from observing these great teachers and have employed
some of their best practices in my own classes. The results have
been highly gratifying.
In sum, teaching is about inspiring and challenging individuals to
be lifelong learners while, simultaneously, nurturing in them a commitment
to good citizenship at the local, national and international levels.
This is particularly so in the social sciences. Finding the appropriate
tools to impart this desire to seek intellectual excellence and sustained
intellectual curiosity is, in itself, also a lifelong pursuit.
Associate Professor of Government and Coordinator of African Studies
People often ask me, “Can you really teach a student to write?” My
answer is, of course, no. Just as some of us are born with instinctive
gifts in, say, spatial relations or fine motor coordination (to mention
two of my own deficiencies), the facility for language might very well
be in our genetic coding, and beyond that, I can’t do much for
the student who says she wants to be a writer but hates to read. There
is no way to develop an ear without listening, no way to develop a
voice unless you have heard the voices of others.
Regardless of students’ preparation,
though, I believe they can learn a lot of useful things in creative
writing classes. Once you
learn to recognize your clichés and to note how your creative
brain has been colonized by bad TV, it’s impossible to remain
complacent about how you communicate. The effort to find fresh insights
and to provide more distinctive ways to say what you have come to say
is exciting and addicting, no matter how fraught with frustration it
But beyond this training—of learning to relish in the making
of sentences or lines of poetry, of mining one’s imagination
for well-rounded characters and plots—a writing class can provide
some of the tools for living a better life. The three ingredients of
a beginning writing class—keeping a notebook, writing for an
audience (fellow students), and reading literature with an eye to craft—teach
a student myriad ways in which words are our bridges, our lifelines
from one human to another. By keeping a notebook in which they practice
recording the world as they see it—a waning moon like a dissolving
cough drop in the sky, a nervous girl at the table in Dana whose hands
move like darting sparrows—students learn to be more observant,
to engage in active seeing. If something you write resonates with your
audience’s hearts and minds—if you find a way, for a moment,
to link your experience to that of your community—well, that
is a joy. And when we read attentively and learn to appreciate the
craft of good literature, we are studying the imagination at work.
The imagination, fully stoked, ignites the fire of empathy, of compassion
for our fellow humans. That, to me, is what a liberal arts education
is for, regardless of the major we pick—to train us to take our
place in our communities as more alert, attentive, compassionate humans.
And when I remember that, I am convinced that there isn’t a more
satisfying job on the planet than teaching.
Associate Professor of English
The Spirit of the Teacher
In thinking on what it is that makes for effective teaching I am drawn
to consider the persons in my experience who have been great teachers.
Behind the pedagogy, teaching techniques and course materials is the
human through whom knowledge is transmitted. While a thorough understanding
of the subject matter is helpful, it is not a necessity. I have had
enlightening learning experiences with teachers who were learning with
the students. I have also had disastrous experiences with experts in
the field. Great teachers bring to their work qualities of humanity
that enable them to connect meaningfully with their students, and it
is at this junction where great teaching takes place.
Here are some
character traits I’ve observed in the teachers
who have influenced my thought in the most profound ways:
* An unfeigned impartial love for all humankind, tempered by an understanding
of the pitfalls of human nature.
* A passion for learning and an intense interest in sharing the joy
of the moment of discovery. An enthusiasm for the subject, and life
itself, that can find expression in any number of ways, from ebullient
effervescence to quiet contemplation.
* Humility and the willingness to grow. Acknowledgment of the facts
that 1) to lead well one must know how to follow well, and 2) you can
learn as much, if not more, from the students as they learn from you.
Indeed, these can be the most meaningful teachable moments.
* The ability to listen. To meet students where they are in their
understandings at the time. The ability to get out of one’s self,
to see the world through another’s eyes, to be sympathetic.
* Discipline with a balance of organization and spontaneity. The ability
to plan coherently but take meaningful detours when they present themselves.
* Patience and kindness. Firmness with compassion.
* Seriousness tempered by a good sense of humor.
* Wisdom. A balance of idealism and practicality.
Styles may vary greatly, but I believe that the substance of great
teaching is the flow of impersonal love initiated by and communicated
through the spirit of the teacher.
Director of Music Ensembles