Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Prior to today, this blog has had 204 entries.   Over the years, the site has had over 134,500 page views (or roughly 650 views of each of those entries).   As always, thanks to everyone who passes along this link to other teachers who are interested in thinking more deeply about the day to day rewards and challenges of going into a classroom to help students develop and grow as human beings.   Thanks!!!

A few weeks ago my dean sent me a note containing a simple question:   Can anyone learn to become a great teacher?   Unfortunately, I did not have a great answer and did little more than ramble around in response.   It is a question that I have thought about often during the intervening weeks.   Is it possible for anyone to develop into a great teacher or is that goal only available to a chosen few?

What do you think?  If you have thoughts, I would love to hear them.

Let me start the conversation by asking a different question:   Can anyone learn to become a great coach in pro football?   In the NFL, great football coaches get paid millions.  It is truly an exciting profession.   You would think thousands of potential great candidates would be available.   And, yes, there are a few great coaches.   Both coaches in the Super Bowl this year probably qualify.   Bill Belichick of New England meets the definition as does Pete Carroll of Seattle.   They have been proven winners for a long time.   But there are not many other names that come leaping forward.  It is a big world and pro football is huge.   Yet I can come up with just two names of great coaches.   Several other people certainly qualify as good but the jump from good to great is always hard.   

In truth, it has to be difficult to get 50-60 individuals to play at close to maximum capacity over an entire season.   My guess is that guys like Belichick and Carroll probably spend close to 100 hours per week thinking about nothing other than how to maximize the potential of their teams.   And, even then, as Pete Carroll proved at the end of the Super Bowl, they can still do things that cause people to be critical.

Why are there not more great coaches?   I think it is especially difficult to be great when you are responsible for a whole group of people.   Every time you add another person to the mix, you increase the complexity of the process.   One person working by himself (or herself) can be great.   Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, Philip Roth, Maria Callas, Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare.   Yes, in each case, other people were involved with these folks but when things got truly serious they had to stretch themselves in order to succeed.   They didn’t have to stretch 55 other people.   Would Bob Dylan or Pablo Picasso have been great if they had been organizing and leading a large group of singers or artists?

Being a great football coach is tough.  But, is it easier to be a great teacher or a great football coach?

In some ways, it is easier to be a great football coach for one reason.   The teams keep score and everyone can agree on the winner.    The goal is simple and obvious.   And, there is only one goal.    No one seems to know exactly what the goal of a college teacher is.  More frustrating, no one seems to know how to measure whether a specific goal has been achieved.   Greatness is a very vague goal in teaching which is probably why few teachers seem to have great education as a primary goal when they enter the classroom each day.   Most coaches burn deeply to be great.   How many teachers have you met who really wanted to be great?

So, are there really any great teachers?   Maybe it is just a fantasy. 

I think a lot of teachers do a good (maybe great) job with the very best students.   That is an important role in college but, at some point, teaching brilliant students who are highly motivated provides a different type of challenge.  

I think a lot of people do a good (maybe great) job of teaching facts and figures.   Many people grew up in a system where memorization skills were highly valued and that priority flows through into their own teaching style.   Personally, in an era of Google and other Internet resources, I think education needs to be more than that.   But that is just my opinion.

I think a lot of people do a good (maybe great) job of entertaining students.   Such teachers are full of interesting and relevant stories.   That is fun and can be very informative but the emphasis is entirely on the story teller.   The student is merely a passive recipient of knowledge.  

I don’t really know if everyone can become a great teacher.   But I do believe that I know how some people might achieve that goal.

First, I think the teacher has to have clear cut objectives and those objectives have to be challenging.   If all Bill Belichick wanted to do was win the first game of the season, he would never become a great coach.   My guess is that he is a great coach because his one goal is to win the Super Bowl each year and everything he does is designed to achieve that goal.  

I have 77 students.   I want to push all 77 to go beyond what they thought they could do.   And, I want to do that every single day for the entire semester.  I am not out to teach 10 or 20 or 30.   I want to teach them all.   I want them all to learn how to work harder and think deeper.   I want to challenge each person to become better in some fundamental way over the course of the semester.   I know it sounds a bit odd but I want each student to be smarter at the end of the semester.  

Second, every action for the entire semester has to point toward your goal.   When Bill Belichick practices his team, my guess is that every minute is set up to push the team towards the championship.   I am in class with my students 150 minutes each week and every action is designed to help all 77 of them learn to work harder and think deeply.  

Third, students are rewarded for their work by grades and testing.   You cannot challenge people to leap tall buildings in a single bound and then give everyone an A whether they manage to make it or not.   If I want my students to work hard and think deeply, I have to test them in that way.   I cannot claim to teach the development of critical thinking skills and then test my students on memorization.   That simply will not work.  

Fourth, you cannot challenge students to be great and then not be available to help them when they need it.   It is not fair to go into class and tell students that you expect great things from them and then walk away and let them thrash around on their own.   You are the teacher; they are the students.   You have to hold office hours where you show students how to achieve what you want for them.   You have to answer emails that seek assistance.   My guess is that Bill Belichick and his assistants show players over and over exactly what they want from them.   They guide as well as push them.   You cannot challenge students if you are not willing to be there to help them grow into that role.

Fifth, I think you have to realize that most college students have already picked up bad habits before they arrive in your class.   That is not necessarily their fault.   They have been in the school systems for 13-16 years.    They honestly believe that an education means memorization and that cramming the night before each test is a good strategy.   Those techniques have always worked for them in the past.   In some ways, you almost have to break those habits before you can build new and improved ones.  I teach 20 year old students who have been in school since they were five.   For the most part, they are extremely well trained in a particular type of education.   “Highlighting” the textbook is one of their strongest skills (because all you need do is move a magic marker).   If you want students to think more deeply, you have to realize that this is likely a new request for them.   They probably cannot even comprehend what you want.   You will need patience and perseverance.   You will need to show them over and over.

Sixth, don’t get wrapped up in the reward system for teaching.    The complaints I hear from teachers are “no one around here cares about teaching,” “there is no reward or recognition for excellent teaching,” and “the administration only listens to the complainers.”   You should strive to be a great teacher (a) because you want to be a great teacher and (b) because your students deserve a great teacher.   If you must be rewarded or recognized in order to put in the effort, you probably will never get there.   Years later some students might realize how wonderful you were—how much you meant to them and their lives.   Other than that, you will probably never be properly recognized.   Do the work because it is important to you.   Don’t expect anyone else to notice.  

Can anyone become a great teacher?

Here is my real answer.   There are a few days when I think I am a great teacher.   There are other days when I am pretty awful.   No one is great every day.   The secret is to work to get better.   The real question should be:   Can anyone get better as a teacher?   And, I think the answer to that question is a resounding YES.   Forget about being great.   Work on becoming a better teacher.


  1. How do you turn students who believe that showing up in class should be the extent of their effort to learn? Most of my students in an urban community college, don't show up at office hours, don't send emails requesting help. They think that if they can't learn it during class, I'm not doing my job!

  2. I always believe that honest and open communications help. If you cannot get email addresses in advance, get them on the first night of class. Use emails to explain why the material is important and what a reasonable amount of work is. Most students replicate what they have done in the past and think that is the absolute proper attitude toward class. I think some discussion in class about what is expected is appropriate but it is easy to start sounding like a sermon. I wouldn't write long emails but I think a short email now and then listed out exactly what you want them to do before you see them again can be helpful. You'll never get everyone to work hard (not even at Harvard) but you can direct them and guide them and try to explain to them why a bit of work will make the learning more worthwhile. Deep in their hearts they probably did not sign up for your class because they did not want to learn anything. Even with the best students, there has to be some guidance: this is what you need to do in the next 2-3 days and why can be helpful. Joe

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