Great Teachers

teacher lecturing in college classroom

I’m currently reading Confidence (Moss-Kanter), which describes confidence as a natural path builder towards winning. Throughout the book, I’ve had numerous, internal chicken-and-egg arguments. Does winning beget confidence which begets more winning, etc?

Set that against an unsettling experience I had a few days ago in a university classroom. I was facilitating a communication seminar with a group of undergraduates – mostly sophomores – when one of them asked me why I was “so excited about communication?” I replied that I am passionate about a few things in life – communication and education being two of them – and that as a good instructor, presenter, communicator, etc., I feel it’s important to showcase that passion. When I pressed the issue and asked how many had experienced passionate instructors or passionate facilitation in a classroom previously, not a single hand went up. I asked a second time in another way, but students all described their K-12 experiences as stilted, boring, and as ‘passion free.’

Finally, I had occasion to speak with our Chair of Undergraduate Education recently – a professor and administrator I admire as much as any teacher I have ever observed – and we started talking about what makes for a great teacher.  What are those traits that ‘great’ architects of learning have, either intuitively or because of hard work that sets them apart?  Specific to the experience with students, I would normally put ‘passion’ on the list. In fact, I think Aristotle’s Canons (ethos, pathos, logos, mythos) make for a decent starting framework. After all, great teachers bring appropriate internal / external credibility to the party, show passion about subjects and/or the learning of concepts, can reason through the importance of concepts tying them to real life, and connect students to outside-their-worldview experiences via narrative experiences.

If you’ve read my stuff with any regularity, you know how much I love frameworks. Patterns are important to our brains and (I believe) to our lives. Even when the best metaphor or analogy breaks down – which they all eventually do – the framing is important. Perception indeed determines reality for most people, much of the time. We know from research that people who think of a ‘team’ through the lens of a sports experience, will act as if their group is a sports team.  Etc.

So is there a definitive list for great teachers?  I’m guessing you are thinking what I am – perhaps you, like me, had more than 1 ‘great’ teacher, but the differences were more than the similarities.  (For the record, I would claim 3 great teachers from my time as a student, although I’ve met dozens in a more collegial sense.) So it’s hard to find that list of ‘great’ things a teacher always does.

Some have tried, to be certain.  Perhaps you’ve seen Chris Lehman’s list which has appeared in various publications and sites.  While not exhaustive, if you add enough context to any list, you start to get close I suspect.  Just last month an Op Ed piece appeared in the Chronicle: The 4 Properties of Powerful Teachers.  My problem is that while I liked the concept, the piece fell flat for me (personally).  It seemed overly simplistic and a bit pie-in-the-sky for my tastes.  Plus, describing great teachers as being similar in Personality, Presence, Preparation, and Passion fell short. While I certainly value those traits in people, my experience with great teachers has seen great variation in personality and presence.  While I fully agree that preparation is crucial to almost any good presentation, I disagreed with the writer that an advanced degree IS that preparation.  And passion…while I whole-heartedly align with Aristotle’s concept of pathos, I need all 4 canons (mentioned above) to be there if a presenter is to be called ‘great.’

An old colleague of mine, Steve Bordonaro, used to say that the best teachers would Do, Show, Tell, Review, and Ask students.  (Yes, I switched around ‘Tell’ and ‘Do’ quite strategically, but that’s another blog.)  I think finding an educational experience that includes all 5 of those concepts is both rare and fantastic, so it qualifies as important on the ‘great’ teacher list of things to accomplish.

But what makes for a GREAT professor, instructor, or teacher?  Is there a definitive list that most reasonable people might agree on?  I think I might have another framework for you.  It’s personalized, adaptive, and student-centric.  It’s simple to say but incredibly hard to accomplish.  It may sound cheeky, but I promise, this is said with the utmost care and respect.

A great teacher is any person who facilitates learning.

I believe it’s that simple.  But when you unpack it, it’s incredibly complex, no?  Because to actually facilitate learning (note – not getting a score on a test or jumping through a hoop) is hard.  It suggests a person who created an environment that was motivating and engaging.  It proposes an argument that is reasoned, credible, and passionate.  It assumes knowing where the learner is coming from, so as not to bore them, nor to go over their heads, but to hit the sweet spot of challenge and complexity just right for them. It requires looking at the affective, cognitive, and conative for all learners.

Might this mean lecturing?  Sure.  There is a small part of the population who enjoys being talked at so as to gain understanding.  But it certainly doesn’t mean lecturing for most.  Could it mean copious reading?  Again, for voracious readers – especially those intrinsically motivated by the content or subject – that might work fine.  But a great teacher would never assume that methodology would work for most.  What about gamification?  As many serious games developers learned early on, there is a population of students who want nothing to do with points or levels or other game mechanics while others love it.

In other words, a great teacher, whether designing an in-person experience, an asynchronous experience, or even a student-directed experience, has a lot to consider.  But learning is the heart of it all.

I hope you have a great National Teacher’s Day.  Because while our mission may sound simple, it’s as complex as any undertaking out there.  

Good luck and good teaching.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University



About the Author
Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden (@bordenj), Saint Leo University’s Chief Innovation Officer, is a consultant, speaker, professor, comedian, and trainer, all while creating an incubator of innovation learning at SLU. Having continuously taught for 20 years as well as consulted, trained, and presented ways by which to transform education at scale, Jeff has assisted faculty, administrators, executives, and even politicians in conceptualizing and designing eLearning programs globally. Jeff has testified before the U.S. Congress’ Education Committee, blogs for Innovations, provides global keynote addresses, publishes in both Education and Communication periodicals, and has been asked to transform teaching and learning, at scale, for Saint Leo.  Jeff is also a regular contributor to the Teaching & Learning blog.


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