You May Be a Truly Terrific Teacher If...

Teacher in action, Rajasthan

In my day job, teachers come to me. I help them use technology in their teaching. And in the process, I see many different, um, teaching styles. (We no longer believe in "learning styles," but maybe we can recycle the concept for teaching.)

I have learned to spot the committed and experienced pedagogue: what I call, "The Truly Terrific Teacher." How can you recognize the Truly Terrific Teacher? You may even be one yourself. (I apologize in advance to Jeff Foxworthy.)

You may be a Truly Terrific Teacher If...

1. care, really care, about the learner.

There was on old saying: the most important thing is authenticity––and if you can fake that, you've got it made.

Truly Terrific Teachers care. It vibrates from every fiber of their being. They're all about the learner. They're curious about the learner. They want to know what the learner thinks and feels. They want to know how the learner is progressing. They want the learner to have a good experience.

When the Truly Terrific Teacher sees a learner fail, a part of her dies inside. It's not just the learner's failure, nor simply the teacher's; the failure is structural: something wasn't there, wasn't done well.

2. have high standards––and you match them with high support.

"High standards plus high support." It's a well-known formula, but the reasoning bears repeating.

  • If you set high standards but you do not support the learner, she gets frustrated, feels betrayed and ultimately gives up.

  • If you do not challenge the learner, she's bored. Without a challenge, why bother? This is the problem with breaking everything down to such small-and-easy steps that no thinking is involved. Students know "busywork" when they see it. They can smell it. Tiny tasks without some larger issue or question are "busywork." No one likes that: not learners, and not teachers either.

3. understand when not to help.

Me helping you is different from me doing the work for you.

This well known by folks in the helping professions. Psychotherapist and counsellors don't magically heal through the magic of cognitive re-framing and uncovering repressed memories; they help the client change by giving moral support, space for reflection, acknowledgment of feelings, and all those other "common factors" underlying of all forms of therapy. (This has been known for (some time)[].)

Many teachers fear helping the student. They believe: it's the student's job to learn, and it surely is. But if the learner does not know help is available, it's discouraging.

The best teachers I know are very clear: the student must try first.

  • The student must do work so the teacher can diagnose the issues.
  • The student may even be given the means to diagnose her own problems––to take on a task, correct the results herself, and identify the trouble spots.

Truly Terrific Teachers sometimes send students away when the student arrives having done nothing. "You have to start so I can help you." The Truly Terrific Teacher may help the student start smaller, may tailor a new, easier task to the learner's needs. But this kind of expert teacher knows that teaching is not injecting knowledge like filling in a Twinkie.

4. plan, plan more and always plan strategically.

Truly Terrific Teachers are always looking at what they're doing and asking themselves questions.

  • Okay, I got them this far, but can I get them further?
  • Where do the learners have problems? Where do they get hung up? How can I help them over these stumbling blocks?
  • What can I do differently?
  • What might the students do differently?
  • Are the teaching materials the best they can be? I may like them, but do the students like them? Do the materials help more than they hinder?
  • Should I provide some more assistance? Or should the students find what they need and then share that information with me and their peers?

Planning for the TTT seems non-stop. She may be revising next year's syllabus even as this year is still going on. Or she may collect notes somewhere to later sit down and revise the course––the syllabus being that planning document which keeps the plan together in one place.

Over- and Under-Teaching.

What's the opposite of the Truly Terrific Teacher?

It's not a question of being bad. It's not a moral issue or a judgment. It's a question of not making the effort, or the right effort, effort directed towards something effective. You can change the air freshener in your car and shine the tires: it won't make you a better driver.

The opposite of the Truly Terrific Teacher is the Over-/Under- Teacher: doing too much, too little––or a bit of both.

The comparisons with the Truly Terrific Teacher are point-for-point contrasts.

You're an Under-Teacher if:

  • you never find out what the students already know;
  • you never find out who the students are;
  • you never ask the students what they need.

One-size fits all teaching is incurious and likely ineffective.

You're an Over-Teacher if:

  • you spend endless amounts of time with the students;
  • you answer all their questions, rewrite all their papers, and help them do all the homework.
  • you could be mistaken for a student's relative.

You may be an Over-/Under-Teacher if...

1. believe that your obligation starts and ends with you giving the students information.

  • You show up.
  • You lecture.
  • You answer one or two questions.
  • And you leave.

It's the student's obligation to learn. (It surely is.)

You show up and deliver the goods. So what's the problem?

The problem is: just delivering information may or may not support learning. It depends on how the information is structured and what the learner needs.

2. have high standards and no support. Or no clear standards, because what you teach is too complex to be oversimplified.

High standards are great. But students may not understand those standards. So just the standards alone are not enough.

And if your subject area is very complex and subtle, it's hard to construct standards. But basic standards can be useful even just as the starting point for a conversation.

3. help so much that you do the students' work for them.

Are students in your office all the time?

Do you take the paper and pen or computer from their hand and show them?

It can be a very effective exercise to ask yourself: "How could I get them to do something to learn this without actually telling them the answer?" Hinting, it used to be called. It's really not a bad idea. If you gave the student a clear goal and lots of hints, that would be better than doing the work for her.

4. one can tell what year it is based on your syllabus.

  • Have you been copying the same syllabus for the last ten years?
  • Is your syllabus a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy?
  • Do you still use White-Out to change a few dates–&ndashand nothing else?

You don't really change the way you teach, because the same number of students get A's, B's and C's each year––so why bother?

Because you could help your students learn better. That's why.

Some Simple Steps Towards Terrific Teaching.

Sometimes people don't teach so terrifically because they don't know what steps to take.

That is: if you don't teach others well, you may not be good at teaching yourself many things––including how to teach well.

It sounds a bit circular, but whatever shape it is, there are some simple concrete steps to take to improve one's results as a teacher.

  1. Find out more about your students. Give a first assignment asking them their interest in the topic, any relevant prior experience. Find out what they liked and didn't about prior courses in your department––not to dig up dirt about colleagues, but to identify possible gaps in your students' knowledge or key misunderstandings about the discipline and departmental expectations.
  2. Ask your students how things are going? Consider starting each class meeting by asking if the students had questions or problems. Could they find the reading? Was it hard to understand? Was it boring or interesting? Show some interest in what students do and don't enjoy. They may become honest with you and see you as an ally in having a good learning experience––which is not the same thing as
  3. Whan a student performs poorly, consider asking yourself what additional support could have been provided. Consider even asking the student how she could have done better. Imagine that the number of students who earn A's, B's and C's are functions of something about the course: deadlines, reminders, previous assignments, triage that helps you find out what the learners' strengths and weaknesses are.
  4. Try to make your standards as explicit as possible without being voluminous. Look at existing stronger and weaker papers and try to develop a holistic description of what those look like. Share those descriptions with the students. Try to build into the syllabus steps and actions students can take to target elements of those holistic descriptions. E.g., if a very good paper is unified, you might ask students to draft outlines, share them with peers and for each outline pick the one element which is the most weakly connected.
  5. For areas where students have problems, invent some support mechanisms. If students don't format their bibliographies well, ask for one to be submitted early so you can give feedback. Or give examples of better and worse bibliographies, with praiseworthy points and faults clearly marked––as you would in handing back work. You may end up saving your own time (and red ink) by helping students avoid problems in advance. And this gives you more time to discuss the subject matter, rather than matters of form.
  6. Emphasize the real-world importance of the tasks. Give a comparison to real work and point to the consequences of not understanding the subject matter. This helps avoid students seeing what they're doing as 'busywork.'
  7. When students ask for help, consider asking them to bring something, however small. This can help the student know: you need something from them in order to help them. It must be a small task, or the student may become overwhelmed and fail to show up.
  8. Help your students understand what effective studying is. After the midterm, ask your students to fill out a survey giving their midterm grade and how they studied. Let them know you'll be sharing their answers but not their names, so ask them not to put in any identifying information. Then sort the results by grade so students can see what A, B and C students do to prepare for an exam. For the final exam, compare the grades by student, and you should see an improvement for the students who earned lower scores on the midterm.
  9. Revise your syllabus. Take notes each year on what doesn't go so well. Then before you teach the course again, drag those notes out and figure out things you might change on your syllabus: extra reading, more time for papers, time to make revisions, etc.

And remember what good learners know: Try something, try anything––but only one thing at a time.

––Edward R. O'Neill


  1. Wonderful post, Ed - especially tip 9, a great idea.

  2. Thanks, Hovig! Sometimes I think professors avoid revising the syllabus because it's such a chore. Everything is connected to everything else! And memory being what it is, it's hard to recall what went, um, no to so well last year. But if you keep some notes, the work can be done in fairly short order.

  3. Thanks, John! Teachers like you and Hovig inspired me to draw this collective portrait.

  4. Practical, savvy, and quite timely, your post synthesizes considerable expertise and provides a practical roadmap for better teaching. Thank you for sharing these insights - and nudging me to become a better writing teacher, both on campus and online.


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