What Keeps Us from Being Great

One of my very favorite words in the English language is “Great.” I just think everyone should decide on a few things in life where they honestly want to shoot to be great. Okay, we may never achieve that greatness but it is hard to get better without a little ambition. And, I believe life just lives better if (a) we know in what ways we would like to become great and (b) we have the satisfaction of going for that greatness. The effort alone will make us better people. (In that regard, I am a big proponent of the Zen expression: “the journey is everything.”)

I simply refuse to believe that settling for mediocrity can prove to be meaningful. For one thing, I believe our students deserve better than that since this is their one shot at a college education.

When I give teaching presentations, I urge the members of the audience to work gradually to become better teachers. That seems like a reasonable goal. And, if we improve year by year, eventually we will get to greatness. In the past, I would then make various suggestions on how to achieve that annual improvement.

Recently, though, I have been considering the idea of greatness from the opposite direction. Maybe, we shouldn’t think so much about how to get there but rather focus on what holds us back. What keeps us (you or me) from becoming better teachers each year? What is the most significant wall that stands in our way? More specifically, over a longer period, what is blocking us from becoming truly great teachers?

I am fortunate that, at my school, I get to work with a very strong teaching faculty. The people with whom I work do a great job of educating our students. But, even the best can get better. Therefore, I posed the following question to my fellow faculty members last year. Basically, the question asks the simple question of what holds each person back from getting better and, hence, stands in the way of our achieving greatness as a teacher. Maybe just contemplating that question is the first step toward greatness.

“Assume that you make the personal decision that, over the next 12 months, you would like to become a slightly better teacher. Maybe it was your Valentine's Day resolution for 2011. Let’s assume, for example, that you currently view yourself as a B teacher and you’d like to feel like a B+ teacher by this day in 2012. Seems like a reasonable goal. My question is this: What would be the most important thing that would keep you from achieving that goal? I’m just looking for one thing but I’ll accept more than one thing. I’m not asking for a lot of thinking—just tell me what comes to your mind right off the top of your head.

“Notice that I didn't ask what keeps most people from getting better over the next 12 months -- I want to know what would keep you from getting better over the next 12 months.”

What was the purpose of this question? That is simple – it seems to me that if we come face to face with the thing that is holding us back we can decide if we really want to be held back in that way. I’m a big believer that self-reflection can make us better (in many, many ways).

So, how would you have answered my question? Be honest with yourself—what is keeping you from being a better teacher over the next 12 months? Once you have identified your own personal wall, you can decide whether you are willing to be limited in that way. Maybe you are but maybe not. You can’t address the wall preventing you from going forward if you never identify it.

Here’s what my colleagues had to say (I’m going to paraphrase these a bit). Maybe some of these apply to you. Maybe they will make you think more about your own teaching and what really does prevent you from getting better over the next 12 months.

I’ll let you guess which one of these I wrote.

1---Lack of willpower to review every lecture carefully before class, when I might tell myself I already know the material well.
2---If something is working (albeit not as successfully as I would like), it is difficult to try something new for fear that it will get worse. That is, my natural reaction is to dig in and do what I’ve been doing more intently rather than make changes that have an uncertain result.
3---The quality of my teaching is directly related to the amount of time that I put into it. It is my opinion that to be an effective teacher most people need just two things: 1.) a real desire to be an effective teacher; and 2.) the willingness to put the time into it that is required. If you are truly committed to being an effective teacher (i.e. you want to improve from a B to a B+), then you’ve met the first criterion. All you really need then is a willingness to put in the time. The time to prepare more for each and every class, the time to meet with students during and outside of office hours, the time to create materials (problem sets, extra questions, study materials, etc.) to supplement the class. So the only thing that really “prevents” me from improving my own teaching is that I don’t put in the extra time. Why not? Every extra hour I devote to teaching is an extra hour I cannot spend on something else. One less hour on research. One less hour on committee/service work. One less hour with my family.
4---I think the lack of feedback that I get from the students on what works and what doesn’t would be the thing.
5---For me, the most difficult part of the teaching process is being able (or maybe willing) to be well prepared for each and every class. When I really prepare, class usually goes well. It is just hard to take the time to be that well prepared on a very consistent basis.
6---I think at this point in my career I have taught so many courses for the first time that I haven’t been able to fully develop any course. It helps me to see what works and then make changes and try different methods. So I would say too many preps too close in time would prevent me from achieving that goal. Also, there is always the issue of finding that perfect balance between the time spent on research and teaching.
7---If I push my students to do better, they will start coming by and asking questions and wanting assistance and I just don’t have the time necessary to do that. I’d really like for them to do better without me having to do any additional work.
8---I am pulled in so many directions and believe if I had more dedicated time to focus on teaching techniques--rather than on completing tasks--then I would be a better teacher.
9---The weight and importance we put on the teaching effectiveness questions found on the student course evaluations in combination with the three-year evaluation window. This greatly reduces my incentive to experiment with new ideas and teaching techniques.
10---I don’t seem to know what I might do to improve or change. Thus, I am not certain how to get better.
11---I have discovered that, for many things in life, the closer you get to the ideal, the more effort it takes to squeeze out the last little bit of excellence. It is easy to be average, quite a bit harder to get to 90%, but that last 10% is harder than the entire first 90%. And the last 5% is harder than the first 95% and so on asymptotically approaching 100% (whatever that is). I have had semesters where I KNOW I wasn’t at my best and I’ve had times that I knew I was close to doing as well as I can do. The truth is that the students don’t really notice – or, more accurately, they don’t appreciate that last 10% as much as they do the first 90%. I put in a good bit of time and energy already and probably get 85-90% of what I’m capable of consistently. On the other hand, reviewers for journals and my scholarly colleagues DO notice that last 5% effort. Similarly, I think my colleagues here do as well when we speak of school and university service work. I’m also confident that my friends and family notice my investments in them as I consider work/life balance. With this in mind, if I have an extra hour or two (my most scarce resource), where do I invest that time (i.e., marginal investment). Should I put it into making improvements to my classroom work (likely to go largely unnoticed) or should I put it into making my scholarship, university or family life better (likely to be noticed and sincerely appreciated)? So, my greatest obstacle to improved teaching is the competing demands and the return I get out of investments in those projects relative to the returns I get from teaching.
12---First -- Lack of knowledge. For example, I would like to help my students write better, but I really don’t know how to do it. Second -- Fear of failure. I’m a B teacher and I have an extremely risk-averse personality. Any change that has the potential to improve the class also has the potential to mess up what is already working reasonably well.
13---My spontaneous answer is not being able to “read” the student’s learning process as well as I would like to. Some students seem to be doing fine when you interact with them but then their exams and assignments disappoints you. Other students seem inactive but they surprise you when they deliver strong exam results and great assignments. Thus, not fully understanding the student’s learning process might be what hinders me from reaching the next level as a lecturer.
14---The way to improve teaching is to know your students just slightly beyond their names (for example, know their major or graduation year or area where they are from…nothing that is especially difficult to find out) because then the teacher can engage them in class because they have become more “real” to you. What will prevent me from doing it is the fact that it is so easy to not do it and it sounds so trivial to be beneficial.
15---For me, the pressure put on the teaching effectiveness questions on the teaching evaluations. I often feel that I am at the mercy of the students and their push-back.
16---It seems that no matter what attempts I make, if it requires the students to “get into it”, they resist. I sometimes feel like we have established an unrealistic, romanticized vision of what our student body is really like. As a result, perhaps I have unrealistic expectations of their intrinsic interest in engaging in the learning process. Or maybe the problem is that I am approaching this the wrong way.
17---I don’t think there is anything in my way other than I don’t listen enough. Sometimes we get into our routine, thinking that what we have done in the past is still as good as it once was – and don’t listen or respond when change is called for. I also have to constantly remind myself that teaching is ONLY about student learning. It doesn’t matter if students like me or don’t, it doesn’t matter if I’ve been fabulously entertaining or not – all that matters is that I have created an environment where they are maximizing their learning.
18---My deficiencies boil down to a small number of root causes. The central of these causes are disorganization and poor time management.

Recognize yourself and your own walls?
What is keeping you from becoming better as a teacher and moving on toward greatness?

Perhaps the first thing you need to do is identify what is holding you back and then deciding whether you want to be held back.

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