What makes a good college teacher?

Enjoyed this older post (2016) I just came across in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Perhaps, because I feel like a lot of the criteria fit me pretty well :-).  To be fair, there’s a lot to good teaching beyond what’s here, but as a basic guide for how to interact with students, this certainly fits my favorite professors as a student and what I have tried to model in my classrooms.  Only my students could tell you how well I actually do at this.

They are good-natured. The best teachers tend to be approachable, as opposed to sour and forbidding. Grouchy, short-tempered, misanthropic curmudgeons can sometimes make effective teachers, too, if for no other reason than that they prepare us for grouchy, short-tempered, misanthropic bosses. I had some grouchy teachers myself, especially in graduate school, and learning to cope with them was a valuable experience I would not wish to deny anyone. But most of my very best teachers were pretty easy to get along with — as long as I paid attention in class and did my work.

They are professional without being aloof. Most academics tend to keep students at arm’s length — the obvious message being, “I’m your teacher, not your friend.” Clearly, professionalism requires a certain amount of boundary-setting, which can be difficult, especially when dealing with older students, where the age gap is often not all that wide and, under different circumstances, they might actually be your friends. My best teachers always seemed to effortlessly walk that very fine line between being an authority figure and being someone I felt I could talk to. I didn’t even understand what they were doing — or how difficult it was — until I had to do it myself years later.

They have a good sense of humor. They may or may not be ready for the Improv, but they don’t take themselves or their subject matter too seriously. Few things are more off-putting than faculty members who think they’re much smarter than anyone else in the room (or any room) — unless it’s those who think their subject is the most important of all and expect students to feel the same way, other classes be damned. My best teachers not only understood that their course was just one of several we were taking, but also had a great, self-deprecating wit, often making jokes at their own expense and even sometimes making light of their subject. Funny how an ounce of humor can sometimes help students grasp the material better than a pound of gravitas.

They seem to enjoy what they do. Some faculty members don’t really like students. They are the academics who constantly whine about their workload and complain about how rude or unprepared their students are. I’ve often wondered: Why are such people even in this profession? What did they expect? The teachers I remember as the very best were those who clearly loved teaching and got a kick out of associating with students every day. After all, no one wants to feel like a nuisance, which is exactly how some teachers make their students feel…

They seem comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps one reason students tend to like these faculty is that they like themselves, without being in love with the sound of their own voices. This is related to not taking themselves too seriously, but it goes beyond that. The root cause of bad teaching is a fundamental lack of self-confidence, leading teachers to overcompensate by being unreasonably demanding, aloof, or condescending to students. Paradoxically, professors who appear arrogant and narcissistic are often trying to cover up what they perceive as profound deficiencies in their own personalities and abilities. The best teachers are confident without being arrogant, authoritative without being condescending.

There’s more, but I think those seem to capture what I’m trying to do pretty well.  I think even the students who don’t like my teaching will admit that I really enjoy what I do.  And I think I’m funny, as do many of my students, but I also enjoy a good laugh at the not entirely uncommon complaint of “he’s not as funny as he thinks he is.”

Of course, if you have all that and you are not good at explaining key concepts or figuring out the most important material for students to know, you’ll be an enjoyable teacher, but not necessarily a good one.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to What makes a good college teacher?

  1. Lawrence Wittenberg says:

    Wow! Sounds exactly like a professor at NC State that I know.

  2. jeffbc94 says:

    Those qualities seem to work out well for university staff too, just sayin…

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