Reflections on the National Great Teachers Movement…Past and Future.

The National Great Teachers Movement began nearly 50 years ago by founder, David Gottshall, who began his college education in California’s Community College system and taught for many years at College of DuPage (COD) near Chicago.  Great Teachers events are difficult to explain, as they are rooted in spirt and experiences.  Yet, there are “simple, but rigid” principles that distinguish a Great Teachers event. They are grounded in the oral tradition, have no scripted agenda, are organic, draw upon the collective wisdom of the participants, and are positive (no whining or war stories allowed). I encourage you to read more about the foundation and history of Great Teachers here.

About 12 years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a California Great Teachers Seminar in Santa Barbara. I didn’t know what I was in for, but recall that the event’s title and its exquisite retreat setting lured me in. I remember the first evening. I felt nervous and socially awkward. I’m an introvert and the idea of meeting a group of strangers and spending five days with them made me begin to question why I wanted to be there in the first place.

During the event’s five days, we spent time brainstorming topics we each wanted to discuss.  Participants then voted on these topics and those with the most votes became topics for break-out group (much like edcamp). We were also placed in small groups and asked to share a teaching problem, a teaching success, and a tip of the trade. Collectively, the needs that each participant brought to the event became the “program.” By the end of the five days, I was moved to tears as I said good-bye to the participants, who had grown into colleagues and friends. It was a life changing experience for me that still is difficult to put into words.

Since that Great Teachers Seminar twelve years ago, I’ve changed a lot. I’ve transformed from a full-time art history instructor into an online faculty development leader. I’ve gone through many dark times in my search for a “home” in higher education — that is, a place where online teaching and learning is not only valued but embraced as something beautiful and mysterious. I say mysterious because I believe in the power of great teachers to continue to uncover new ideas and practices as technology continues to change. I’ve found my home at CSU Channel Islands and I’m immensely grateful for that.

But something is still missing from my professional life. And that “something” is a contribution to the National Great Teachers Movement. In an effort to explore this void and find a way to fill it, this week I attended the 5-day Great Teachers Leadership Summit in Bryce Canyon.  My colleagues this week were organizers of Great Teachers Seminars (and also great teachers, by the way!). My experiences here mirrored many of the fond memories I have from my first Great Teachers Seminar in Santa Barbara 12 years ago. I was honored by having the opportunity to spend more time with David Gottshall, who is now 84 years young. He is such an inspiration and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to let him know how much his work has affected me. Also cool was learning that Paul Martin (@pwmartin) was planning to attend. Paul and I have been connected on Twitter for quite some time and this was my first opportunity to meet him in person.  Paul and his colleague, Judy Koch, returned to Edmonton, Canada today to prepare for their 31st Great Teachers Seminar, which begins on Sunday at the Banff Centre in Alberta!

I also observed some interesting changes in myself this week. In recent years, all of my professional development experiences have incorporated my own use of technology. During conferences, my phone is either in my hand or in my pocket (or I’m panicking because I’ve left it somewhere…grin).  I Tweet as I learn. I search as I question. I photograph as I observe. This ongoing digital engagement deepens my learning, as I am able to record my thoughts and connect with educators around the world as I learn with educators attending the event in person.

The event I attended this week did not integrate technology. While we were not explicitly told “you cannot use your devices,” the lack of them in the room was enough of a message for me. I struggled to write on a notepad. Honestly, I now dread pouring through the notes I took on paper.  I took out my laptop on the second day and used a Google Doc to take notes — I felt joy upon being able to move my digital text around, organize my ideas, create a visual hierarchy with headings, and search for key words in my notes. Deep inside, I felt a bit of shame for having my laptop out.  To me, an individual’s preference to use technology has become an element of diversity. This was a fascinating experience for me and one I will continue to learn from as I reflect on it. I’m also connecting these experiences with the challenge we were presented with this week — to envision what the next iteration of the Great Teachers Movement will look like. How do we honor the traditions and principles of NGTM while serving the needs of educators in a digital society whose focus is to prepare students to be contributing digital citizens?

In an effort to integrate a meaningful use of technology into the event, I offered capture 30-second video reflections from participants about “What the National Great Teachers Movement means” to them. During “the in-between time,” I uploaded the videos to YouTube, tagged them with #NGTM, and made a playlist for them. I’m hopeful these videos will contribute to spreading the word about this valuable professional development concept.  The video playlist is embedded at the top of this page — please feel free to share it.

As I write these reflections, I feel an affirmation about my interest in organizing a Great Online Teachers Seminar in California.  As I’ve moved from working as an instructor in the California Community College System to an online and blended faculty development specialist in the California State University system, I have envisioned an annual Great Online Teachers Seminar as a phenomenal way to connect faculty who teach at 2-year and 4-year institutions in a professional community, learn from one another, and build relationships.   Some days, I am ready to jump up and just do it. Other days, I think I’m nuts.

David Gottschall explains that a Great Teachers Seminar is like a bowl — it creates an opportunity for a void to exist. Within this void, each teacher participant has the opportunity to place his or her problems, successes, ideas, and emotions.  And together, the teachers marinate in this “secret sauce,” as Steve Smith referred to it this week. By the end, we are a community. We are a family. We are connected. We are refreshed, revived, and refocused on our teaching.  Online teachers need a space to experience the rich, talented community they are part of and feel honored, supported, and valued. The future of higher education depends on this.

I’m not sure exactly what my next step is. But I know that today I am one step closer to organizing a Great Online Teachers Seminar than I was five days ago.  Have you attended a Great Teachers Seminar? If so, share your reflections in a comment below.

Learn more about future Great Teachers Seminars in North America here.

9 Comments to “Reflections on the National Great Teachers Movement…Past and Future.”

  1. “Online teachers need a space to experience the rich, talented community they are part of and feel honored, supported, and valued.”
    YES! Let’s make it happen. Great to meet you in person at last and to have shared this experience with you.

  2. Nancy Sattler

    I am wondering if you ever created an online Great Teachers Seminar. I worked with David in Ohio. We had seminars for over 10 years. When my husband got sick, I quit organizing them. I helped start both the Michigan and New York Great Teachers. Now more than ever, I can see the value of an online GT. Can you let me know what you are doing?

    1. Hi Nancy. Thanks for your comment. In 2017, I co-facilitated a multi-day, in-person Great Online Teachers Seminar with Steve Smith in Asheville, North Carolina. I’m not sure if Steve has done any more of them on his own since then.

      I led two single-day Great Online Teachers Seminar (GOTS) events in 2017 and 2018, scheduled as pre-conference workshops at the Online Teaching Conference (coordinated by the CA Community College system). You can read reflections about the first one here:

      I had hoped to get some traction with a multi-day GOTS in California, but have not had success with it. I agree, there is more of a need now more than ever. Thank you for this reminder.

      Let’s keep in touch!

    2. Nancy Latour, Corning Community College

      Nancy–This morning I woke up thinking what happened to David Gottshall? I must have been dreaming…anyway, I googled and found this conversation. You helped Les Rosenbloom and myself in New York! What good times and memories I have! Hope you are well; I’m feeling all warm inside. Thank you!

  3. Nancy Sattler

    As I prepare for a meeting tomorrow, I was reminded once again of Great Teachers when a gentleman shared that we should be discussing the art of teaching. Have you done anything recently?


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