What makes a good teacher? When I was a graduate student TA..
February 8th, 2010


What makes a good teacher? When I was a graduate student TA, the professor who was put in charge of mentoring me told me that the secret to high teaching ratings was mobility. The more the instructor walked around the first-year classroom while talking the more attention s/he got from the students and the higher the ratings. I was appalled at the time, smugly thinking that my professor-mentor was shallow and lazy, and that his lectures were big on show and light on tell. But the truth was that that instructor did receive high teaching ratings and students really enjoyed his classes. For the most part, they stayed awake and for all I know they learned as much if not more than anyone in the classroom next door.

I have often thought about that informing experience in the decades since. My once cocky notions about what made a good or less than good teacher have undergone many challenges, and I have certainly been humbled by my own teaching experiences, satisfactory and sometimes less so, in the classroom.

Most of us were self taught—that is, as graduate students we might have had mentors, but until recently there were no courses or workshops dedicated exclusively to teaching skills. Like most of my peers, I discovered my own teaching voice strictly by practicing, building my own lessons and learning on the fly, one piece of chalk at a time.

Measuring teaching effectiveness is a complicated and largely unscientific business. I doubt we are any better at it now than we ever were, or that we will ever get much better at it in the future. Despite widely credited teaching evaluation questionnaires, arguably the most reliable indicator of teaching effectiveness is student appreciation. As has always been the case, students share their impressions and experiences in the classroom with each other, and, over time, the fragments of all those circulating anecdotes shape into what we commonly call one’s reputation.

Still, universities insist on establishing elaborate mechanisms for rewarding good teaching. And they do so without any persuasive criteria for measuring what is ‘good.’ I like citing the findings of a director at the Association of American Colleges and Universities who surveyed faculty on the value of teaching awards. “Handing out ‘teacher of the year’ awards may not do much for a college,” Ashley Finley noted. A minority of respondents to her survey “said that the existence of such an award on their campus would not motivate them to improve their instruction. And there was no evidence that such awards built faculty members’ morale or deepened their commitment to their institutions.” (http://tinyurl.com/yakb64l)

Many might find these findings dispiriting and many others probably strongly disagree with Finley’s conclusions, but I actually take great comfort in the view that teaching awards really serve the award givers, who need to look good, and not the institution itself. I also like to quote another educator’s observations that if universities really cared about teaching they wouldn’t be handing out teaching awards. I know that sounds sick, but I believe it’s true.

We are all expected to be doing our jobs in the classroom, striving to be the best communicators, whether in large undergraduate class or small graduate seminars. A lot of different elements inform the effectiveness of our teaching, some of which are entirely out of our control. Consider the sheer range of speaking voices and styles, levels of confidence, body types, gender, race, height—all aspects of our physicality and psychology to which students are wired to react. It is interesting to note that online teaching effectiveness is much more easily measured according to the degree of attention the instructor gives to each student, including accessibility, speed of email response, and so on. Without physical bodies to run interference, teaching effectiveness can be distilled into an essence of presence.

If we can assume that university instructors actually know what they are talking about then what does that leave us for measuring good teaching, and for justifying teaching awards? I can appreciate attention to the innovators in the classroom, the ones who really experiment with delivery and format and take the entire learning environment into an entirely new and creative dimension. Those kinds of teachers are rare and their demonstrated efforts should be acknowledged. But imposing annual rituals of recognition really undermines the integrity of what the rest of us do. Really, what makes someone getting a teaching award better than the rest of us, especially when to qualify for such an award one has to spend a lot of time trumpeting one’s own talent and building one’s file as “evidence.”

Memorial offers a first-rate non-credit course in teaching for graduate students, part of our Graduate Program in Teaching or GPT. Students elect to take the semester-long seminars in which they learn a variety of approaches to teaching and they get to practice their own skills before both their peers and an unforgiving video camera. For years, graduate students have been lining up to enroll in the GPT, invariably always applauding the usefulness of the experience and the reach of their new self-knowledge. A terrific feature of the GPT is that every student in the program is treated with respect, and no one student is told that she or he is better or more excellent than any other. They are all expected to take their experience forward into their own independent encounters in the classroom, doing the best they can and aiming for inspiration and success in every single class. Too bad that message gets lost in the phony competition of teaching excellence among the professoriate.


Thanks to tinaylin for sharing this week’s photo via flickr.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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