by Doris Carey, Faculty Member, Faculty of Academic and Career Preparation, VIU

Photo Credit: VIU License for Thinkstock Photo

Photo Credit: VIU License for Thinkstock Photo

I recently read an article with an intriguing title: The Differences Between Successful And Unsuccessful People (Jacqueline Smith, Business Insider, March 19, 2014). I immediately thought of what I might include in a list of the differences between successful and unsuccessful students, thinking they might be useful for my students. But then again, numerous published books have a similar theme.

Then I thought of what might distinguish our most successful teachers and turned to the Internet literature for inspiration. Nothing has changed in 30 years: we apparently fail to agree on what makes a great teacher, let alone a “good” teacher. I gleaned through lists of characteristics of effective teachers and opinion pieces on what makes a teacher great in the eyes of a particular student. Few of the articles were based on any research on the subject, probably because we’d need a consensus on what characteristics to observe before starting such a study and that seems to be a difficult task.

Meanwhile, students seem to know instinctively what makes a teacher good and they can list off five or six qualities without stopping to think very much. Between my students and the articles I read online, I gleaned a short list of five qualities that would make reasonable goals for a new teacher. Thus, I eliminated charisma, personality, great storytelling ability, risk-taking, worldliness, and brilliance.

I also eliminated confidence and experience since those come to us in time and aren’t useful for beginning teachers.

I brutally slashed all the fuzzy characteristics like warmth, patience, understanding, empathy and caring. My own experience as a student taught me that a teacher didn’t have to be nice to be great. In fact, when I was in high school, I had an English teacher who was often in a dark mood (we thought she was hung over) and not often friendly (students described her using a word that rhymes with witch). But she pushed us hard, believed we were bright and capable, and rewarded us for finishing our grammar exercises with more advanced work that she gleaned from other books. In the end, we had great language skills and even those of us whose first language wasn’t English came away with impeccable grammar and a killer vocabulary.

The characteristics that remain are those that I would use to advise new teachers and instructors working with adults. I’ve chosen them because, unlike charisma and charm, you can develop these skills if you focus on them, and you can get help from experienced teachers who know how to achieve them.

1.    You are organized. Piles of papers or forms are overwhelming. You need a filing system from day one, and you should be able to find anything in seconds. This means that your teaching materials and lessons should be highly organized too. Students expect clarity and they won’t do well if your course is chaotic and random. Borrow good ideas from colleagues who appear very organized.

2.    Communicate clearly. My students told me that one of their teachers has no syllabus for her course. They never know when tests are scheduled or assignments are due until they’re announced in class. They feel that chaos reigns and the teacher is making up the curriculum day by day. Your job as their teacher is to help your students be well prepared for your class and your tests. Use a syllabus to communicate your expectations of them. Borrow sample syllabi from colleagues if you don’t know where to start. Your syllabus should include a schedule that students can follow throughout the semester.

3.    Show respect for students. It isn’t enough to respect students. They have to feel that you respect them. Sadly, the list of ways that students feel a lack of respect from instructors can be far too long. Course material that is too easy and trivial tests make them feel that they wasted their time preparing. Allowing students to arrive late shows a lack of respect for those who went to great lengths to arrive on time. Extending deadlines arbitrarily also hurts students who turned their work in on schedule.

4.    Amp up the energy. Students like teachers who show a lot of enthusiasm for their subject and for teaching in general. They like a lively classroom. If you’re tired from grading papers half the night and you drag yourself to class, students will feel sleepy too. Keep your energy high by eating healthfully, getting some fresh air and exercise, getting plenty of sleep and making time to relax. If you’re naturally quiet and shy, think of ways to get students to participate so that their energy feeds your lessons. Laugh at their jokes. Smile to show you’re happy to be there.

5.    Surprise your students. Classrooms can be boring places where students bring a cup of coffee or a water bottle and hunker down to take notes for an hour or so. An occasional departure from routine livens up your lectures. Hands-on activities, group discussions, a video or a slide show may be all you need to break the routine. You’ll soon learn what motivates your students most. Ask yourself how you can pique their curiosity or change their thinking. You can always ask your students what their favourite classroom activities are. Some students are very shy and want to be left alone, but they’re willing to participate if they don’t have to speak to the whole class or stand up in front of the room.

The list is by no means exhaustive and it’s not what I’d use with an advanced group of teachers. But it was useful in getting me to revisit my own teaching and polish up my own skills. Now I shall go gather some rulers and scissors to create a hands-on lab for my math class!