I Knew I Was Becoming a Good Teacher When...

August 10, 2015

You’ve just finished teaching your class for the day and head home. You sit down for dinner, and a loved one asks, “How was class today?”

How do you respond? The answer may be revealing.

When I was in my first semester teaching as a graduate student, I studied Rhetoric with Professor Richard Gregg. He was well known in the field and about to retire, so we capitalized on the chance to “download” as much of his wisdom as possible - about research and teaching. On one occasion in particular, and I can’t recall how it came up, we enticed him to talk about his approach to teaching. He spoke briefly before a classmate chimed in, “That’s great, whatever your approach may be, but how do you know you’re doing a good job with it?” Professor Gregg paused, smiled knowingly, and relayed this insight: “When I first started teaching I would arrive home every evening and eat dinner with my family. Every evening after I taught, my spouse would ask me the same question - ‘How was class today?’ For a long time, I always started the answer by saying, ‘I did … (great, poorly, ok, etc.)’ I knew I was becoming a good teacher when I stopped answering it that way, and instead replied, ‘The students did … (great, poorly, ok, etc.)’”

The lesson from his insight holds true today. Good teaching does not exist in a vacuum, and is impossible to achieve if students are universally not doing well. Good teaching is promoting student learning. In that spirit, here are 5 methods you can utilize to be ready to explain how your students did today:

  1. Have them DO something. If what you have planned for the day could be done the same way with, or without, the students in the room, then you won’t be able to answer the question. Use active learning, very brief formative assessment/feedback tools, clickers, discussion, small group work, etc. Literally anything you have students do with a relevant purpose to the topic of the day will give you a view into their level of understanding and whether they’re learning the material.

  2. Watch and Listen. It may seem overly simplistic, but I still observe classes that utilize some kind of active learning as the instructor sits at the front table disengaged. One key to successful active learning of any kind is that instructors pay attention while the students talk, problem solve, and do everything they can to show us what they do and don’t understand. We just need to remember to watch and listen - and then respond accordingly.

  3. Let learning drive teaching. If an entire course is created around specific content, and the pedagogy that naturally follows is strict lecture, an answer to the question will be elusive (see #1 above). If a course is also focused on the process of exploration, discovery, examination, and/or application of content, then the answer will be more clear as students necessarily engage in more active “doing” and less passive “listening” (even if lecture is still the primary pedagogical method).

  4. Make them teach. Do you want to see how much your students really know about the topic? Do you want to see exactly where their gaps in understanding may lay? Set up an activity where they are tasked with teaching the topic to a specific audience that does not have the same content background (e.g., high school students interested in the major). Nothing exposes clarity in understanding, or lack thereof, better than teaching it.

  5. Leave ego at the door. This may be the hardest part - at least it was for me. It’s always been easy to write off a bad class to factors beyond myself, because,“I know I’m good at this, so it must be something else at play in today being a bad class.” The hard truth is that we need to leave our ego at the door. Whether it means putting aside a bit of lecture to make space for student voices (even when we know this lecture is perfect as is), or holding ourselves accountable (at least to some degree) for student learning, the less ego we bring to the class allows for more honest attention given to making real-time adjustments that meet the needs of this group of students.

So, let’s try this again, “How was class today?”