December 16, 2010
Four Characteristics of Outstanding Teachers
The quest to identify the ingredients, components, and qualities of effective instruction has been a long one. Starting in the 1930s, researchers sought to identify the common characteristics of good teachers. Since then, virtually everybody who might have an opinion has been asked, surveyed, or interviewed.
Students have been asked at the beginning, middle, and end of their college careers. Alumni have been asked years after graduating. Colleagues within departments and across them have been asked, as have administrators, from local department heads to college presidents. So many studies have been done that there are studies of the studies.
Despite this large database, researchers continue to explore this issue and, surprisingly, find new groups to ask and new ways to analyze the results. Even more amazing is how much overlap and consistency there is across these many studies, and the study we’re about to highlight here is no exception.
The researchers studied a group of 35 faculty members who had received a Presidential Teaching Award at a public university in the Midwest. To be considered for the award, teachers had to write a 1,500-word essay describing their teaching philosophies and teaching goals. Using a qualitative methodology (hermeneutics), researchers analyzed these statements with the goal of identifying the factors that made these teachers successful. The researchers found four categories of comments characteristic of all these award-winning teachers.
1. Presence: “The term presence for this study is defined as a deeper level of awareness that allows thoughts, feelings, and actions to be known, developed, and harmonized within. Presence is also the essence of a relationship and of interpersonal communication.” (p. 13) Illustrating this particular category were comments in the essays indicating how important it is for teachers to get to know their students. “The classroom should not be a sea of faceless forms,” writes one teacher. (p. 13) Another observes, “In helping students achieve their highest potential, I realize I must cherish their individuality—their special needs, interests, and rich life experiences.” (p. 13)
2. Promotion of learning: These teachers also wrote of the importance of student learning and their roles in promoting it. They held their students and themselves to high standards, seeing students’ work in their courses and programs as preparation for lifelong learning. They also wrote of the need for students to do more than just memorize material. “Mere possession of scientific knowledge without the ability to apply it is of limited value in nursing practice,” wrote one nurse educator. (p. 14) Equally important was their shared view that promoting learning goes beyond content acquisition. Education is also about personal development, and teachers have a role in promoting that kind of learning as well.
3. Teachers as learners: These exemplary teachers described themselves as learners, each making it a priority to keep their teaching current. “As teachers, we must continue to re-engineer our curriculum, experiment with new and different methods of delivering course content, and bring emerging technologies into our classrooms.” (p. 15) These teachers valued opportunities to revise course content, to teach new courses, and to work on degree-program curricula.
4. Enthusiasm: “Effective teaching presupposes a command of the material and facility in communicating it with clarity, grace, fairness, and humor. But most of all it supposes enthusiasm.” (p. 15) This enthusiasm starts with a love of the content, but it goes beyond that and includes a genuine love of teaching and a passion for students and their learning. “I am also concerned that my students develop a passion for learning that goes on well after the course has ended.” (p. 15)
In their conclusion, the researchers note that “there is no formula for successful teaching. Each professor is unique and has an individual educational philosophy and teaching goals.” (p. 16) Even so, good teachers share common commitments and characteristics—they do in this study and have done so in many others as well.
Reference: Rossett, J. and Fox, P. G. (2009). Factors related to successful teaching by outstanding professors: An interpretive study. Journal of Nursing Education, 48 (1), 11-16.
Excerpted from Qualities of Successful Teaching, The Teaching Professor, 24.1 (2010): 6.