At the end of every course in graduate school, my classmates and I were handed a course evaluation. Mostly it had to do with the professor, and the results were particularly important to the untenured. Good evals helped them along; bad evals put their positions at risk.
While filling out one of these forms for a particularly dry and uninspiring professor, I realized that the survey was all wrong. It presented questions such as Was s/he prepared? Did s/he know the material? Did s/he give clear instructions? Well, yeah, he did all of that stuff–but I still didn’t like him. He may have known his stuff, but he didn’t do anything to make me want to know it. He didn’t draw me in, he wasn’t very good at actually teaching it, and he was kind of a jerk. Yet according to the scores on my evaluation, he was perfect.
Unless the university was evaluating the guy’s preparedness, the survey was flawed.
Of course, that got me thinking.
I’ve already written about the importance of asking the right questions, so I won’t belabor that point. The other thing I’ve been chewing on since I recalled this experience is what does make a great teacher? It certainly isn’t knowledge alone. The world is full of really smart people who can’t teach a thing.
Thinking about my all-time fave, a language arts teacher from high school who taught me creative writing and English lit, none of the questions on that flawed evaluation would have captured her magic for me. What still keeps her present in my mind is the connection she fostered.
Sure, she was a smart lady who knew her subject matter and was prepared every day. What made her a teacher–and a great one–was her ability to get me engaged. I certainly didn’t like every book or every assignment, but I did like her. And she knew what buttons to push to keep me interested.
After all these years, I don’t remember a lot about what I read in her class or what assignments I wrote. I do remember HER, though, fondly and vividly. And I’m pretty sure she had something to do with the fact that I’m a writer now.
That’s what makes a great teacher.