The Quest for Teaching Excellence

"Teachers should not be predictable in their teaching practices or approaches – in fact, in my view all great teachers are not predictable because they always surprise and excite their students with different “tricks of the trade” up their sleeve" - A. A. Karim.

In this posting I will share some of the 'open secrets' of being great teachers and their attributes that provide the environment for teaching excellence. In fact, I put the original title as "Open secret recipes of great teachers" but I changed my mind and instead use the current title. The main points actually are based on the article “The Quest for Excellence in University Teaching” written by Sherman and others [1]. It was published more than 20 years ago but I think the idea is still very much applicable and relevant when we talk about the characteristics of teaching excellence, be it in school or in higher education.  Some might argue whether it is still relevant to talk about teaching excellence while the trend now is towards changing the paradigm from teaching to learning paradigm (teacher-centered to student-centered)? In my view, teaching and learning have to go hand-in-hand – it is inseparable. The student-centered paradigm simply means an increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student but the role of the teacher is still vital although not so much as a provider of knowledge but more as a facilitator.

Five characteristics have been identified by the authors to constitute excellence in teaching: enthusiasm, clarity, preparation/organization, stimulating, and love of knowledge.

ENTHUSIASM – Without doubt, enthusiasm is a critical element for good teaching, and believe me students have a sixth sense for it! If students see a teacher who demonstrates a passion and exude enthusiasm for the subject he/she is teaching, inevitably they will be affected by this energy and will engage themselves actively in the learning process. The enthusiasm that teachers bring to the classroom helps to create an encouraging and supportive atmosphere. I firmly believed that teachers, who share their passion for teaching, and teach with enthusiasm and empathy, are more likely to both connect with learners and increase learner performance. Numerous researches have affirmed that students respond favorably to enthusiastic teachers and this trait has always been associated with teaching excellence, so it is highly desirable to remain enthusiastic. Having said that, enthusiasm has been regarded by some people as a natural part of the individual teacher – the intrinsic attribute – one either "has it" or "does not have it."

What attributes define enthusiasm? These include vocal delivery that is rapid and excited, eyes that dance, facial expressions that show surprise, word selection which is highly descriptive, and an overall energy level that is explosive and exuberant. Hmm…”overall energy level that is explosive and exuberant?” Yes, this factor is actually very important, at least for me. I’d rather cancel my lecture if I were not mentally or physically prepared. This is because I always want to be seen energetic and enthusiastic when delivering my lecture. Of course, it’s hard to maintain the same level of enthusiasm every time but teachers have little choice if they expect the students to reciprocate and if they want to make the classroom comes alive. “A sound mind resides in a sound body” – so we (teachers) should keep reminding ourselves to maintain a healthy mind and body, keeps fit and be energetic to keep the fire burning!

Dr Patrick Allit in his book “The Art of Teaching: Best Practices from a Master Educators” shares many tips and strategies to master the art of teaching. He raised this interesting statement and question (page 58) – “In the early days of your teaching career, you were no doubt filled with excitement and energy but what happens after 25 years down the road, when you’ve been teaching for so long that every class seems like a rerun of one you’ve done before? Every vocation can become dull through repetition and familiarity, teaching included, but the best teachers find ways to prevent a sense of monotony from ever setting in”.

CLARITY – A good teacher is one who clearly explains themselves clearly so that their students understand exactly what is being taught. Teachers should have an excellent grasp and the mastery of the subject they teach. Teachers should be able to articulate their ideas succinctly without any ambiguity. However, even though teachers are the subject matter expert, sometimes they need to try a few different ways of explaining before they find one that is most effective for their students. In my view, when a teacher is able to explain something in more than one way, it shows that they have a complete understanding of the information they are teaching. That not only gives validity in what they say, but it makes their students believe them too! According to Wallen [3], the effective teacher is one who appears to be able to explain concepts clearly and such that the students seem to be gaining understanding.  The bottom line is that teachers should strive to embrace and immerse themselves in the subject matter to achieve an expert level and this would benefit both teachers and learners immensely.

Personally in my classroom, I spend more time on introducing and explaining important concepts. The approach in presenting the material in the class is of utmost important to achieve this objective. Typically, before delivering a new concept to students, I articulate the background information, and ask them to find out the solution. Along the way this approach would reveal the depth of their prior knowledge and their grasp of fundamental principles. Then I introduce the theory I wanted to communicate. This approach creates curiosity to learn about the concept. It enables the students to remember the subject forever and also stimulate them to look for other approaches for that task.

PREPARATION AND ORGANIZATION - Preparation describes the types of activities the teacher performs to ensure that a lesson or course can be conducted as planned. Organization refers to the way the teacher organizes or structures the subject matter [1]. A good teacher put considerable effort, energy, time and even money to organize and prepare their teaching materials. Typically, this included: constructing detailed course outlines, establishing course objectives, and defining evaluation procedures.

STIMULATING - Boredom can be a teacher’s greatest enemy! Thus, it is important that teachers create a stimulating environment that captures and captivate the interest of the students. Stimulating teaching includes elements such as entertaining, motivating, captivating, engaging, interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking. According to Sherman and other [1], stimulating teachers appear to create interest and thoughtfulness in students resulting in closer attention.

Making learning fun and stimulating is easier said than done – it is an art as much as it is a practice. This is the part where teachers can be creative and use any “tools” or techniques available at their disposal. Teachers should be aware of the various pedagogical options and techniques so that they can “mix and match” as appropriate to suit certain learning environment and different learning styles. It’s just like a buffet lunch with a variety of foods to choose from to suit your taste. With all the teaching repertoires, teachers should not be predictable in their teaching practices – in fact, in my view all great teachers are not predictable because they always surprise their students with different “tricks of the trade” up their sleeve. If you recall my previous posts about MIT’s physicist Walter Lewin then you’d understand what I mean.

KNOWLEDGE – Sherman and others divided knowledge into two general categories: the teacher's grasp of the subject matter and the teacher's love of and passion for the subject matter. I guess this is the “disciplined mind” as Howard Gardner explained in his book, “Five Minds for the Future”. Gardner asserted that one needs to know how to do at least one thing really well - not only superficially – not a generalist – not that of Jack of all trades but master of none! In other words, a disciplined mind refers to the ability to focus and develop a deep knowledge and mastery of any subject matter, be it music, photography, quantum physics, etc. So if teach about food chemistry, I should have the in-depth knowledge of the subject so that I can guide my students in their exploration appropriately.

Paulsen [2] suggested that teachers should possess three types of knowledge: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline.

Five attributes of great teachers as mentioned here are by no means definitive. To be one of the best teachers, one has to make a systematic and reflective appraisal of own teaching approaches and strategies. Knowing what make great teachers is not enough – what’s more important is practicing and infusing the best practices of great teachers in our teaching consistently towards achieving the teaching excellence.

References and further readings:
  1. Sherman, T.M., Armistead, L.P., Fowler, F., Barksdale, M.A. (1987). The Quest for Excellence in University Teaching. The Journal of Higher Education, 58(1)1, 66-84.
  2. Paulsen, M.B.(2001). The Relation between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 86,19–29.
  3. What are the dimensions of teaching excellence?
  4. Suggestions For Producing Teaching Excellence
  5. A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching with Excellence

I hope to add more resources and links for this posting (when I can find the time!).


    1. On teaching excellence this, the ways of one of the hailed great teachers, may be useful to those apiring to excellence in teaching and to teacher excellence:

    2. Hi.. I am Diah Pitaloka from Indonesia, Central Java, and I'm Biology teacher in SMP Negeri 1 Surakarta, junior high school.
      I hope can be great teacher, so have you material about Quantum teaching like the guest for teacher excellence?


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