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Please begin with an informative title:

When I was an undergraduate student, I had some very good and some rather poor teachers.  And there were some I loved and others I really loathed.  There were some who really knew their material but couldn't communicate it outside of scholarly publications, and others were just charm themselves and I would spend hours enthralled by their stories.  

I went to college in the 1980s.  The idea of flipped classes (where homework-type stuff goes on in the classroom and lectures are replaced by web videos and outside-of-class readings), group work, and (for the most part) service learning were unknown concepts at most universities, and even so-called "active learning" was limited to art and music classes and science labs.  Assignments were generally a midterm, a final, and a term paper.  I was a humanities major (classical archaeology), so there weren't many homework assignments in my major classes.  Homework was largely limited to language classes.  

The college was not large (smaller than my high school) and I went through classes with the same cohort.  My professors were easily available, and on those few classes that were large enough to have TAs, they were usually pretty accessible as well.  The one major exception to both TA and professor was in Art History, ironically the field in which I teach now.  I found it very frustrating because I didn't understand the things that were asked for in the exams, and thus I didn't do well.  When I asked for guidance the TA could not explain to me why I did poorly and it was frustrating to me.  I have tried in my own teaching to be clear in comments on essays and in exams so that someone will understand why they didn't get the points they would have hoped.  So even bad class experiences have taught me about what to do (or not) in the classroom.  

Follow me beyond the squiggle of doom for a few thoughts about what makes a good teacher in a university classroom.

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I should be clear about the context in which I am working.  I teach at a regional Master's level institution (with a very small number of graduate students scattered across a few programs at the university -- the largest are in business (accounting) and education, with a handful or two in English, communication disorders, and music).  We have relatively few classes taught on line and I have never taught or taken an online class.  I do use Blackboard to provide assignments, general feedback, and support materials (links to videos and articles, for example).

So what are the characteristics of a good teacher?  

He or she should get assignments (papers, exams, quizzes) back quickly, with meaningful and clear feedback provided on an individual basis.  I fail miserably on this, but not as badly as some.  I am not as quick as I should be -- sometimes I push back the deadlines for the next assignment to make sure that students have an opportunity to benefit from the comments I make.  This gives you a hint of what I value in the paper assignments.  I provide students with multiple opportunities (two, minimally, but more often three or four) to turn in written research work over the course of a semester.  For each assignment I want them to take on the comments I have made before and improve their submissions.  They should get the form for footnotes and bibliography correct, and if they don't the first time around, they should for the second or the third submission!  But more than that, they need to develop an understanding of the proper tone of writing scholarly papers in the field of Art History, and be able to apply it in their own written work.  Each discipline has its own "voice," and even if students never write another Art History paper, this exercise should help them recognize their own academic major's distict "voice."

A teacher should be available to students, to provide them with help, support, and guidance in their research and studies.  This doesn't mean that a teacher needs to do the support by herself all the time.  There are resources available to students on campus.  The student major group provides class tutoring and peer reading.  Guiding students to their sessions is a useful way to give them a place to study and review.  I will go over papers and (in spite of the fact that I hate doing it -- it makes me a nervous wreck) explain to students why they got the grades they did.  As you have heard above, this was one of the things I found unsatisfactorily addressed in my own undergraduate career, and I don't want any of my students to be as frustrated as I was.  And I do not believe that the only time my students should be able to get feedback or ask questions from me is the time I am in my office hours.  I keep 5-6 hours scheduled for office hours, but I am in my office usually much more than 5-6 hours a week.  If I am there, and can manage it (i.e. I am not in meetings), I am available to students.  But the most common way students want to contact me is via email.  I am happy to answer their questions when I get them.  I tell them that I will do so, and if they don't hear from me in 12-15 hours (usually answers will be in less than an hour, so obsessive with email am I), they should contact me again.  I do not worry about invasion of my "space" with email, and I like having a written record of what I have said -- if it is late at night, I may not be as coherent as I thought I was and it will help to look at the message the next day.

A teacher should be entertaining and engaging in the classroom.  For me that is still a really old-fashioned approach, of myself as storyteller.  I am teaching history, and that is the ultimate opportunity to tell tales.  History is fascinating, and fun, and the way I tell it you have pictures to go with the stories.  What is not to like?  But it is difficult in my large lecture classes to have any sort of in-class projects that would accomplish what I want them to get out of lectures.  They need the framework of history, how countries interact and how individuals both participate and challenge societies -- in art, politics, and technology.  My students' knowledge of the framework of history is limited.  They at least have some sense of American history, but not a strong sense of when the middle ages were, or even where to find major cities in Europe and the Middle East when given a blank map.  I have therefore remained more than a bit wedded to content.  In the written assignments students focus on methodology, and how to evaluate scholarly work, but in the classroom we are covering progress through time.  It is a very old fashioned approach, but it is fun.  And it is framework that is familiar to students.  But in a class lecture, I supplement the material in the textbook dramatically with stories and images that will more clearly communicate the importance of the individual monuments and general trends.

So a good teacher should:

     be reliable in providing timely (hopefully prompt) and meaningful feedback,
     allow you to demonstrate improvement from one assignment to the next,
     be accessible to students and provide assistance, either by themselves, or
            by connecting a student with the appropriate helpful mechanisms.
     and be entertaining in a purposeful way (the entertainment should not be the
            only aspect that is important, but there is really no excuse for being dull!).

What am I missing?  What are the characteristics of the best teachers you have had?

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Mar 16, 2013 at 12:16 PM PDT.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

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