I’ve seen a lot of great teachers in the classroom. And they all teach differently from one another.
So, to become a great teacher, you don’t have to follow a set of prescribed steps. If someone is telling you that a certain teaching approach is required to be great, then skepticism is warranted. You can be a great teacher by using an approach that is all your own. (You can also use your own approach and be a nightmare. Your mileage may vary.)
Sure, some teaching approaches tend to be more effective than others. For example, educational research clearly shows that inquiry and peer interactions result in high levels of engagement, which then causes more learning. But, lots of teaching methods cause high engagement, and this is highly instructor-dependent. If a professor doesn’t want to teach a certain way, then it probably won’t work.
When we first stumble into teaching at the university level, we all develop and employ a “bag of tricks,” or build our “toolbox.” (When I’ve posted about teaching here, I’ve used the tag ‘efficient teaching‘ to discuss some of tricks and tips and approaches that I’ve used or think can be helpful.)
A lot of us, when we start teaching, model the approaches of some of our favorite teachers. And pretty much every good ‘guide to learn how to teach’ that I’ve seen cautions against this approach. It might take some experience, but just because there’s a teaching trick that you loved as a favorite student when you were a student, doesn’t mean that it’ll be an effective trick when you employ it yourself.
For example, when I started teaching my own lower-division biology class for majors, I used started every class with a student presentation on an ‘organism of the day.’ I experienced this as a student and it was really cool and we all learned a lot. And I’m not alone in this. Meghan Duffy did this with her classes last year, and she found it wasn’t a roaring success. I was surprised that her experience paralleled my own; my students didn’t come close to learning the things that I’d imagine they would be learning.
What worked for me as a student won’t work well for all of my students. In hindsight, this makes sense, considering that when I was a student I was a future biology professor, even though I didn’t even conceive of it at the time. Using my own experience as a student as a barometer for what my students will benefit from is probably not a good idea.
Using my own experiences as a teacher as is also a crappy barometer for the teaching successes of others. That’s why, when Meg Duffy posted about “organism of the day,” I didn’t poo-poo all over it. I still think it’s a good idea. I imagine it worked well for the professor that used it in my class when I was in college, so it should be able to work for others. Because I don’t have any grand insights about how or why it didn’t work for me — then I didn’t have much to contribute to that conversation.
You’ve gotta have some kind of toolbox when you’re teaching, but using these tools or tricks in a certain way isn’t the way to get to great teaching. To figure out what works takes experimentation, knowledge of yourself, knowing your students, and an understanding of the institutional context. Does an organism of the day work? Do clickers or plickers help out? Do weekly or daily ungraded quizzes help? Does taking a couple minutes for a muddiest point at the end of class help? Does a speech about metacognition on the first day of class set the stage well? It might, or it might not. You’ve got to figure that out for yourself.
Academic freedom means figuring out how you can be most effective.
That’s not to say there aren’t things that great teachers have in common. From where I sit, I think all great teachers share a few properties: they care about and respect their students, treat teaching as a serious professional responsibility, and keep an open mind about what constitutes effective teaching.
Based on those prerequisites, there are a lot of professors who lack what it takes to be great, unless they experience a change of heart. (I should be clear that I bear no illusions that I myself am a great teacher. I think I don’t suck, but I can be a lot better. Seriously, among the people at my university who get teaching awards, let me tell you that I am not even close to being in the same league as those folks, quantitatively and qualitatively. I think that fact doesn’t devalue what I have to say on this site, for what it’s worth.)
Here I posit that to be a great teacher, it takes a certain attitude towards teaching and your students. Perhaps being respectful and actually, genuinely giving a crap is most of the battle. And from there, instead of joining a movement that strongly advocates for One True Way of teaching, maybe consider that it’s all just simple tricks and nonsense.