As students, we know when we are in the (physical or online) presence of a great teacher. They convey their passion for their subject matter. Through the choices they make in the design of their classes and they way they interact with learners, they demonstrate that they care about their students’ academic success. When a student asks a question, they listen intently and respond in a way that considers the impact that their choice of words will have on that student, as well as any others who may be listening or have access to the response. They approach each semester as a new opportunity to improve upon the last one, seeking out to find new pedagogical practices, and they always learn from the results. They understand that learning is a messy cognitive, social, and emotional process, that is not entirely measurable through a test score. They view teaching as an extraordinary gift — a privilege — which provides the opportunity to change the future paths of humans and to leave a mark on a person’s life.
In my role as as a faculty developer for online and blended classes, I interact with faculty regularly. While I only observe teaching on rare occasions, I still know when I’m in the presence of great teachers. Yesterday, I met with a small group of Composition faculty at CSU Channel Islands who are part of the California State University Course Redesign with Technology program. We were discussing various topic related to teaching with online, digital tools and the topic of student engagement came up as an observed outcome. I noted how frequently we hear the phrase “student engagement,” but how rarely we hear the phrase “faculty engagement.” Over many years, I have been drawn to using online technologies in my classes because they increase both my students’ engagement and, in turn, my own engagement as an instructor.
One of my peers, Clifton Justice, responded (these quotes are my attempt to paraphrase their words), “I see digital tools more as a way to inspire my students.” I love that word. Inspire. Only great teachers would use that word. Clifton also emphatically stated that he sees using digital tools in his writing classes as a mandatory service we must provide as members of a higher education institution. He asked, “These are the tools they will need to use in their lives after college. If they don’t learn how to use them to promote their own growth and development here in college, then when will they?” Great teachers, like Clifton, examine teaching with technology through the lens of preparing students for a mobile, digital world.
Then my colleague, Kim Vose, added, “I don’t know how a professor could not be inspired by our students.” Kim went on to share a story from a recent small group interaction with her composition students. She shared how each student had written a story about a time in their own life. One student shared a story about surviving cancer. Another shared a story from childhood about how he and his family lived in his car because he was homeless. Kim is also a great teacher. Only a great teacher would design writing activities that pull students into reflections and storytelling about their own lives. Only a great teacher would spend time in a small group, listening to her students’, and be motivated by her students’ ability to persevere and find their own path to a 4-year college degree.
In higher education, we often lose sight of the fact that great teachers are our leaders through this unprecedented time of change. I am grateful for this reflection today. And grateful to work with so many great teachers.