I was intrigued to read this PECOP blog post on what makes a good teacher from December 2016. The post recommends that we reflect on our teaching at the end of the semester, and begin the process of understanding our teaching perspectives through the Teaching Perspectives Inventory. What makes a good instructor is something that is extremely relevant to me, because teaching happens to be my job and my passion.
I was recently prompted to think about this very question as I made contact with my former secondary school in Liverpool, U.K about being featured as a former pupil of theirs (I feel more than slightly uneasy about being featured together with John Lennon however!). I was stimulated to think about my former teachers and what I had learned from their teaching. I left the school over 20 years ago but can to this day recall specific teachers, moments in class, and things I learned inside and outside the classroom. Certainly, that’s the kind of learning I’d like my students to have 20 years after I’ve taught them!
As I reflect on the teaching that I had, several aspects popped out to me.
A love of teaching: My best teachers clearly loved teaching students. They enjoyed interacting with students, creating a rapport with us, which made the subject matter come to life and facilitated our engagement with the material. I have come to the realization that perhaps the most important aspect of teaching is to enjoy connecting with your students in order to create an effective learning environment. The saying of “they won’t care what you know until they know that you care” is somewhat cliché but it has a lot of truth to it. As a soccer coach in my spare time, I frequently reflect on the fact that if you don’t like kids, you shouldn’t coach youth soccer. In the same way, our teaching is unlikely to be as effective as it could be if we don’t like interacting with our students and enjoy teaching them.
Meeting students at their level: My English literature teacher taught us Pride & Prejudice, a text that many in my class found somewhat boring. My teacher perceived the boredom, and attempted to understand why it could be perceived as boring to my classmates. He then adapted his teaching to this in order to emphasize why the text was important. He attempted to bring the text to his students and make it relevant to them, rather than merely expecting students to engage, understand and enjoy the text automatically.
Adaptable: The best lesson I ever had was a history lesson. My teacher was a few minutes late, and as we all sat inside the classroom waiting for him, a dispute arose amongst two students in the class. The teacher came into the classroom and upon encountering the dispute, proceeded to set up a court to judge the basis of the evidence of the ‘crime’, as an example of the history of trials and determining justice. I have no idea if that was his intended lesson, but I was in awe of how the teacher adapted his lesson so perfectly to something that had just happened in the class. It is a reminder to me to be observant and adapt to issues that our students may be experiencing.
Practical: One of the most salient things I learned came from a teacher who was supervising me as I visited potential colleges. We were looking for somewhere to eat dinner one evening, and as we walked past various eating establishments, he gave me the advice of “never eat in an empty restaurant”. This has stuck with me ever since and I apply it frequently when deciding where to eat. It was practical advice on something that I had never before considered, and the ‘light bulb’ lit up for me. Reflecting on this, I see our role as teachers to help our students see beyond the immediate – to analyze and think critically about what we see with our eyes, and to help them consider what things mean. Finally, what we teach them must also be practical and relevant.
From these reflections, I have come to the realization that a good teacher is someone who is able to adapt to where our students are in terms of the knowledge that they come with, and take them to higher levels of learning that they cannot get to on their own.
What is your definition of a good teacher?
Hugh Clements-Jewery PhD is currently Visiting Research Associate Professor and M1 Course Director in Physiology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford, IL, starting in November 2016. Prior to moving to the University of Illinois, he taught medical physiology at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine from 2007 to 2016. He is a certified trainer-consultant in Team-Based Learning.