What makes a good teacher in higher education is not your level of knowledge, or even your ability to grade students quickly. It’s down to the relationships you build in class and how you activate those through the techniques you use to teach. Read on to find out three important things to bear in mind in the classroom of 2018.
What makes a good teacher: Inclusivity
Standardization isn’t just a problem with lesson content—it’s getting upended by the students themselves.
The student population is changing rapidly. Some 45 percent of part-time students in the US work more than 35 hours a week; the figure is 10 percent for full-time students. “Time poverty” is also an issue among students who are parents. Those who have children are only 10 percent as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than those who do not. And a separate survey found that parents of preschool-aged children are roughly twice as likely to drop out of college.
But good teachers are recognizing these demographic shifts by adapting their classes and their communication styles to fit.
Although flexibility is important to inclusivity as a teaching trait, what’s just as critical is being absolutely clear what you expect of students. Tell students, preferably at the very beginning of your course, what the expected workload will be, how you grade (do you take attendance and/or participation into account?) and what your policies on assignment submission are. Encourage full communication both ways—with full transparency, students who are time-poor can then decide how to plan their course load—or find out early that they can’t commit the time.
Another example is marketing Professor Shaun Dakin, who teaches an undergraduate class at George Mason University. A large proportion of his students work full-time, and still more are first-generation immigrants who are less confident in their use of English. One class takes place in the evening, to accommodate work schedules.
To address the challenges of teaching a class with varied levels of English and irregular schedules, Dakin decided to increase the use of active learning in his classroom. Dakin put his lectures online so students could view them in the time they have, and then used Top Hat as a solution for class discussion and polling. “I wanted to figure out how to give everybody an opportunity to participate,” he explains in this video.
What makes a good teacher: Personality
According to Rob Jenkins, leadership coach and English professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College, there’s a personality type that fits best with teaching—but if that’s not you, then you can fake it until you make it.
Of course, the ideal teaching personality is a difficult thing to exactly quantify, but Jenkins describes some of the facets as being good-natured, professional, aware of boundaries and “demanding without being unkind.” Presence and self-confidence are important too. While all of these traits don’t come naturally to everyone, all talents can be developed with practice.
Being good-natured depends on the day (and for some, access to caffeinated beverages), but a good teacher should strive to be approachable, rather than forbidding. Boundaries and professionalism are tied up with this—you are not your students’ friend or amusing cousin (see next section), but students should feel that you are approachable. And, presence in class is different from being arrogant or narcissistic. You should be confident enough not to have to throw your weight around.
Finally, Jenkins adds, you can’t be a good teacher if you don’t generally like students, you feel like they’re a nuisance, and you unwaveringly complain about their attitudes and their work. “I’ve often wondered: Why are such people even in this profession? What did they expect?”
What makes a good teacher: Thoughtfulness
The key theme that ties the above traits together is thoughtfulness—a good teacher focuses mostly, or all, on his or her students.
Jacques Berlinerblau, student advocate and professor at Georgetown University, says that good teachers focus on each individual in the class, rather than the class as a collective…or themselves. Some teachers are self-styled, wacky ‘fun professors’ who see class as a performance; others want to be valued for their knowledge. Both types tend to create students who want to sit back and watch the action. Cast those personas aside and focus on each students’ writing, speaking and performance, and prevent the class becoming passive.
As Berlinerblau says in his recent book Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t: “Good teachers think a lot about their students. In turn, their teaching engenders thoughtfulness.” (Watch our webinar with Jacques Berlinerblau on demand for free, here.)
Education expert James Lang applies this concept in his class by introducing several student-focused active learning activities to class—”small changes,” as he labels them. For instance, using the first few minutes of class to greet each student individually and bring them into a wider conversation about the topics of the day, or during the class asking them to write down their own connections with the subject matter in a 8.5”x11” notebook. These practices promote mindful learning that is focused on the student, not the teacher.
This kind of mindfulness in teaching requires effort at first but soon becomes a self-sustaining habit because it creates better student engagement—and takes the focus off the teacher’s performance. Perhaps, in the end, what makes a good teacher is making sure you stand out of your students’ way and let them perform.