Teaching: An Art and a Craft

The following is a collection of  6 articles, surveys, and essays on the qualities and characteristics  of an inspiring and successful teacher.

I  asked my students what are the essential ingredients of a positive learning atmosphere – here are their responses ( 120 students – thinking critically and creatively and introductions to ethics).

  1. The best class I have ever had was because:

    a. What the teacher did: crazy, fun, interactive, motivates us, no tests, relaxing, learning about the self, discussions, respectful, flexible, understanding, used concrete examples, related learning to life, kept it lively, passionate, enthusiastic, supportive, shared necessary information, humorous, knowledgeable, positive, engaging, high energy, interesting, kept the class moving, limited lecturing, cool assignments, organized, took things lightly, and told some funny stories.

    b. What the students did: interactive, worked together, participated, open discussions, feedback, engaged, asked questions, small classes more effective, respectful of one another, polite, and students wanted to be there.

    c. Other factors: time flew by, good atmosphere, comfortable teaching style, solid content, openness, smaller class, appropriate breaks, group work, start and end on time, sometimes released earlier rather than starting a new topic, useful, interesting subject matter, relevant, activity based, participation, not glued to the book, structured but open, relaxed class, and worksheets were realistic, and helped to learn better.

2. The worst class I have ever had was because:

a. What the teacher did: assuming intelligence, didn’t try to understand, made students write with a red pen, poor planning, not organized, accusatory, not in touch with students, didn’t teach, death by power point, no explanations, don’t answer questions, talked too much – they know it all, complained about everything, not contributing to group work- sat on their chair and never moved around the classroom, non-stop lecture, did not give breaks, lazy, judgmental, crabby, unsocial, close minded, didn’t know what they were talking about, was condescending, hard to understand what they were saying, too much material, not knowledgeable, taught for memorization and not understanding, gave too many objective tests, and too much homework, and some being busy-work, rude, inconsiderate, ran class like a prison, forgetful, read off power point and did not actually teach, losing temper, bad mood, monotone, read word for word, and language barrier.

b. What the students did: messed around, texted, interrupted, didn’t pay attention, withdrew from the course, distracted others, bullied with words, disrespectful, disruptive, rude to the instructor and peers, negative, uncooperative, bad groups, no interaction, were not serious, were playing games on phones, ended up teaching one another, and lack of participation.

c. Other factors: time dragged, lack of content, teacher lacked experience, lack of breaks, monotonous, overwhelming and useless information, and hard to follow.


The Ideal Professor vs. The Typical Professor

By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

It’s a new year and a new semester, with new courses and different students — along with perhaps a few favorite courses and students you get to spend time with all over again, and maybe a couple of each you won’t miss at all. In other words, it’s a new beginning.

As we begin again, I thought this characterization of “The Ideal Professor” might be of interest. It’s offered by students who were asked to compare their Ideal professors with their Typical ones. This cohort of juniors and seniors rated professorial characteristics in three areas: personal, course design, and policies and behaviors. The items were selected for the survey based on research in each of these three areas.

Perhaps a bit surprising is the lack of strong distinctions between Ideal and Typical professors. “We found that preferred qualities and behaviors were not wholly absent in the Typical professor — they simply appeared less pronounced than in the Ideal professor.” (p. 182) Despite overall similarities, the research team does describe some of the differences between the two as “striking” and eight of these are listed below. The numbers reflect the percentage of students who endorsed this characteristic for their Ideal professors and the percentage who said they characterized the Typical professor.

Teaching Characteristic



Professor speaks clearly/not monotone



Course and daily goals appear on the syllabus



Students have a voice; input on course policies and procedures



Professor talks informally with students sometimes



Professor lectures



Professor uses discussion



Professor does in-class activities/demonstrations



  • Uses humor often/occasionally
    ·Uses humor occasionally only
  • 97
  • 75
  • Cheating/plagiarism policy – investigates and resolves incidents
    ·Do not know what approach is used to deal with academic dishonesty
  • 58
  • 64

Solicits anonymous, written, informal feedback on teaching/course



  • Solicits student feedback two or more times per term
    ·Never solicits student feedback
  • 72
  • 30

The research team offers this succinct summary: “Overall, our research suggests that Ideal professors are highly accessible to students, allow student input into the course policies and procedures, provide for significant variety in the course, and provide a comfortable learning atmosphere for students.” (p. 182)

Two findings are worth noting as we launch a new year and another semester. First, students indicated that overall, personal characteristics were not important for their Ideal professor. I take that as a validation of our individuality. Ideal professors aren’t all cut out of the same cloth. We can be who we are; we shouldn’t try to create some inauthentic teaching personae. And I think it’s encouraging that the characteristics these students identified as belonging to those teachers who most effectively taught them were not absent in Typical professors. They just weren’t as pronounced. I take that to mean, if you aspire to be ideal, you don’t have to do new things, just more of those good things you already do.

The question not answered by this research is whether the characteristics identified as ideal have any bearing on student learning. Based on other research, it is probably safe to say that most of the characteristics don’t cause learning but they may make it a more likely outcome of a classroom experience.

Reference: Epting, L. K., Zinn, T. E., Buskist, C. and Buskist, W. (2004). Students perspectives on the distinction between ideal and typical teachers. Teaching of Psychology, 31 (3), 181-183)


By: Maryellen Weimer, PhD in Teaching Professor Blog

In November I had the great privilege of interviewing Parker Palmer. If you don’t know his book, The Courage to Teach, it’s one not to miss. If you haven’t read it in a while, it merits a reread. After reading it again, I found new ideas I missed the first time, old ones I have yet to understand completely and others I hadn’t thought about for far too long.

Parker writes that academics have a tendency to “think the world apart.” “We look at the world through analytical lenses. We see everything as this or that, plus or minus, on or off, black or white; and we fragment reality into an endless series of either-ors.” (p. 64) I see us doing this as teachers and I can’t think of a better example than how being teacher-centered is juxtaposed with being learner-centered. You are either a teacher who lectures (now considered bad) or you are a teacher who involves and engages students (now considered good). In short, this orientation pits teaching against learning.

It is true that for many years the pedagogical focus was on teaching. We assumed (and not without justification) that if teaching improved, so would learning. When teachers demonstrate characteristics like organization, enthusiasm, clarity and fairness, research has shown that students learn more (as measured by higher grades). But the reality of so many students coming to college minus important learning skills stimulated an interest in learning and, along with it, the realization that perhaps we had emphasized teaching too much. Our preference for and focus on learning has now tipped the scale in the other direction.

The thinking that teaching is either teacher-centered or learner-centered breaks an inseparable bond and does so to the detriment of our students and ourselves. Learner-centered teachers still need to lecture, as in tell students things. After all, faculty are the definitive content experts in the classroom and our knowledge and experiences can be immensely helpful to students as they work to master course material and eventually find their way to careers and lives that matter. Meanwhile, those who are teacher-centered should work to engage and involve students. They must recognize that students can learn from each other and that the deepest learning happens when students have the opportunity to practice and obtain feedback.

The best teaching is not one or the other, but a combination of both. As my colleagues Ricky Cox and Dave Yearwood write in the January issue of The Teaching Professor, “It is time to re-assert the role of teacher as a multifaceted individual who contributes to learning inside and outside the classroom. Teachers positively impact students on many levels, including curriculum design, intellectual challenge, personal growth, career guidance and other less tangible ways. Our students not only know us as teachers who design their course, they also know us as people who listen to their aspirations and struggles. Indeed, students’ memories and experiences with teachers are often just as important to their success as the skills they develop and knowledge they acquire.”

Parker Palmer explains why seemingly paradoxical things should be joined. “The poles of a paradox are like the poles of a battery; hold them together and they generate the energy of life; pull them apart, and the current stops flowing. When we separate any of the profound paired truths of our lives, both poles become lifeless specters of themselves…” (p. 67)

It is time for us to start addressing the more complex and interesting task of joining together teacher-centered and learner-centered instruction. The question for those who aspire to be learner-centered is not how to abandon lectures, but to understand when “teaching by telling” effectively advances the learning agenda. Learner-centered teachers should not leave students to muddle through on their own, but must know when to intervene and what kind of interventions enable students to discover their own way to understanding. Teacher-centered instruction does not get bogged down in a morass of policies and prohibitions that establish the teacher’s authority, but explores how to set boundaries within which students can make choices and move toward autonomy in learning.

Reference: Palmer, P. The Courage to Teach. 10th Anniversary Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.


Nine Characteristics of a Great Teacher

By Maria Orlando, EdD

Years ago, as a young, eager student, I would have told you that a great teacher was someone who provided classroom entertainment and gave very little homework. Needless to say, after many years of K-12 administrative experience and giving hundreds of teacher evaluations, my perspective has changed. My current position as a professor in higher education gives me the opportunity to share what I have learned with current and future school leaders, and allows for some lively discussions among my graduate students in terms of what it means to be a great teacher.

Teaching is hard work and some teachers never grow to be anything better than mediocre. They do the bare minimum required and very little more. The great teachers, however, work tirelessly to create a challenging, nurturing environment for their students. Great teaching seems to have less to do with our knowledge and skills than with our attitude toward our students, our subject, and our work. Although this list is certainly not all-inclusive, I have narrowed down the many characteristics of a great teacher to those I have found to be the most essential, regardless of the age of the learner:

1. A great teacher respects students. In a great teacher’s classroom, each person’s ideas and opinions are valued. Students feel safe to express their feelings and learn to respect and listen to others. This teacher creates a welcoming learning environment for all students.

2. A great teacher creates a sense of community and belonging in the classroom. The mutual respect in this teacher’s classroom provides a supportive, collaborative environment. In this small community, there are rules to follow and jobs to be done and each student is aware that he or she is an important, integral part of the group. A great teacher lets students know that they can depend not only on her, but also on the entire class.

3. A great teacher is warm, accessible, enthusiastic and caring. This person is approachable, not only to students, but to everyone on campus. This is the teacher to whom students know they can go with any problems or concerns or even to share a funny story. Great teachers possess good listening skills and take time out of their way-too-busy schedules for anyone who needs them. If this teacher is having a bad day, no one ever knows—the teacher leaves personal baggage outside the school doors.

4. A great teacher sets high expectations for all students. This teacher realizes that the expectations she has for her students greatly affect their achievement; she knows that students generally give to teachers as much or as little as is expected of them.

5. A great teacher has his own love of learning and inspires students with his passion for education and for the course material. He constantly renews himself as a professional on his quest to provide students with the highest quality of education possible. This teacher has no fear of learning new teaching strategies or incorporating new technologies into lessons, and always seems to be the one who is willing to share what he’s learned with colleagues.

6. A great teacher is a skilled leader. Different from administrative leaders, effective teachers focus on shared decision-making and teamwork, as well as on community building. This great teacher conveys this sense of leadership to students by providing opportunities for each of them to assume leadership roles.

7. A great teacher can “shift-gears” and is flexible when a lesson isn’t working. This teacher assesses his teaching throughout the lessons and finds new ways to present material to make sure that every student understands the key concepts.

8. A great teacher collaborates with colleagues on an ongoing basis. Rather than thinking of herself as weak because she asks for suggestions or help, this teacher views collaboration as a way to learn from a fellow professional. A great teacher uses constructive criticism and advice as an opportunity to grow as an educator.

9. A great teacher maintains professionalism in all areas—from personal appearance to organizational skills and preparedness for each day. Her communication skills are exemplary, whether she is speaking with an administrator, one of her students or a colleague. The respect that the great teacher receives because of her professional manner is obvious to those around her.

While teaching is a gift that comes quite naturally for some, others have to work overtime to achieve great teacher status. Yet the payoff is enormous — for both you and your students. Imagine students thinking of you when they remember that great teacher they had in college!

Dr. Maria Orlando is a core faculty member in the doctoral Educational Leadership and Management Specialization at Capella University. She also serves as an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri


One. Good teaching is as much about passion as it is about reason. It’s about not only motivating students to learn, but teaching them how to learn, and doing so in a manner that is relevant, meaningful, and memorable. It’s about caring for your craft, having a passion for it, and conveying that passion to everyone, most importantly to your students.

Two. Good teaching is about substance and treating students as consumers of knowledge. It’s about doing your best to keep on top of your field, reading sources, inside and outside of your areas of expertise, and being at the leading edge as often as possible. But knowledge is not confined to scholarly journals. Good teaching is also about bridging the gap between theory and practice. It’s about leaving the ivory tower and immersing oneself in the field, talking to, consulting with, and assisting practitioners, and liaisoning with their communities.

Three. Good teaching is about listening, questioning, being responsive, and remembering that each student and class is different. It’s about eliciting responses and developing the oral communication skills of the quiet students. It’s about pushing students to excel; at the same time, it’s about being human, respecting others, and being professional at all times.

Four. Good teaching is about not always having a fixed agenda and being rigid, but being flexible, fluid, experimenting, and having the confidence to react and adjust to changing circumstances. It’s about getting only 10 percent of what you wanted to do in a class done and still feeling good. It’s about deviating from the course syllabus or lecture schedule easily when there is more and better learning elsewhere. Good teaching is about the creative balance between being an authoritarian dictator on the one hand and a pushover on the other.

Five. Good teaching is also about style. Should good teaching be entertaining? You bet! Does this mean that it lacks in substance? Not a chance! Effective teaching is not about being locked with both hands glued to a podium or having your eyes fixated on a slide projector while you drone on. Good teachers work the room and every student in it. They realize that they are the conductors and the class is the orchestra. All students play different instruments and at varying proficiencies.

Six. This is very important — good teaching is about humor. It’s about being self-deprecating and not taking yourself too seriously. It’s often about making innocuous jokes, mostly at your own expense, so that the ice breaks and students learn in a more relaxed atmosphere where you, like them, are human with your own share of faults and shortcomings.

Seven. Good teaching is about caring, nurturing, and developing minds and talents. It’s about devoting time, often invisible, to every student. It’s also about the thankless hours of grading, designing or redesigning courses, and preparing materials to still further enhance instruction.

Eight. Good teaching is supported by strong and visionary leadership, and very tangible institutional support — resources, personnel, and funds. Good teaching is continually reinforced by an overarching vision that transcends the entire organization — from full professors to part-time instructors — and is reflected in what is said, but more importantly by what is done.

Nine. Good teaching is about mentoring between senior and junior faculty, teamwork, and being recognized and promoted by one’s peers. Effective teaching should also be rewarded, and poor teaching needs to be remediated through training and development programs.

Ten. At the end of the day, good teaching is about having fun, experiencing pleasure and intrinsic rewards … like locking eyes with a student in the back row and seeing the synapses and neurons connecting, thoughts being formed, the person becoming better, and a smile cracking across a face as learning all of a sudden happens. Good teachers practice their craft not for the money or because they have to, but because they truly enjoy it and because they want to. Good teachers couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

By Richard Leblanc, York University


Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice to the Online Classroom

By Oliver Dreon, PhD

Almost 25 years have passed since Chickering and Gamson offered seven principles for good instructional practices in undergraduate education. While the state of undergraduate education has evolved to some degree over that time, I think the seven principles still have a place in today’s collegiate classroom. Originally written to communicate best practices for face-to-face instruction, the principles translate well to the online classroom and can help to provide guidance for those of us designing courses to be taught online.

1. Encourage contact between students and faculty. Students need to know how to contact their online instructors and should be encouraged to communicate with us when needed. In my online courses, I identify multiple means of contacting me (email, Skype, Twitter, etc) and clearly post times when I’ll be available to chat during online office hours. While few students utilize the online office hours I provide, offering this time communicates to students that I am available if they need assistance and that I value this interaction.

2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students. For those of us who believe that people learn through socially constructing their understanding based on their experiences, this principle is critical. Online courses should not be independent study classes. Online instructors need to build collaborative structures into their courses to promote student-to-student interaction. In my experience, I find that students who feel isolated in an online course have difficulty being successful. In my online courses, I incorporate collaborative and interactive ventures early on. I also try to foster discussions where students communicate with one another, share ideas, and debate concepts. While interacting with the instructor is important in an online class, it is also important that students have a space where they can discuss concepts with one another as well.

3. Encourage active learning. Learning is not a passive activity. For students to learn, they must actively engage with the content in thoughtful, purposeful ways. As you develop your online course, consider ways to build active learning into the course content. This can include utilizing tools with a course management system (discussions, for instance) or other tools (GoAnimate, Animoto). But active learning isn’t limited to technological avenues in online courses. Someone teaching science online could utilize hands-on lab activities developed with common everyday items. Someone teaching psychology or sociology online could have students conduct observational work at a park or at the mall.

4. Give prompt feedback. This can be tricky, especially with instructors teaching larger online classes. While grading hundreds of papers can be overwhelming, students need to receive prompt feedback to know whether they are being successful or what they need to do to improve. If you have a few larger assignments in your class that you know will take more time to provide quality, constructive feedback, communicate this to your students. You should also include some smaller assignments that will not take as long to assess. While some experienced online instructors use the course management system to build automated responses into their courses, I believe that some students still need personalized feedback on their work that comes directly from their instructor.

5. Emphasize time on task. Learning takes time. Students and faculty working in online spaces need to realize this. Just because an online course may be more flexible schedule-wise does not mean that it won’t require a significant time commitment. It’s important for instructors to communicate expected time commitments but also be realistic with their expectations. Assigning students to read a 500 page book in a day may not be completely realistic. Have high expectations but respect students’ need to have time to interact with the content and learn.

6. Communicate high expectations. While it’s important to have high expectations for students, it is also critical that these expectations are clearly communicated to students. Likewise, it is helpful to communicate clear expectations for participation and for interaction. Do you want your students to log on daily? Do they need to submit assignments in a certain format? Is it okay for them to use emoticons in their discussion posts? These are just a few of the areas that online instructors need to consider as they develop an online course for the first time.

7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning. Students learn in a variety of ways. While there will undoubtedly be some text-based content in an online course, it cannot be the only mode of delivery or assessment. Draw on the host of multimedia options available online to deliver content to students and to assess them. Instead of typing out some long lesson on the Middle Ages, check out YouTube or Vimeo for some available videos. Or better yet, use a screencasting tool like Jing to record a customized lesson. Instead of assigning a ten-page paper, have students create a video where they demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Dr. Oliver Dreon is the director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University.


Roger J. Vanden Busch


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