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What is Good Teaching?

By Glenn Schuyler

This topic triggers many memories for me, from my earliest days in a three-room elementary school in rural Central Pennsylvania, to my high school years, my college experience, and my years in the classroom as a middle school science teacher. It's probably no surprise to many of us, too, that the memories we have are derived from our most negative experiences to our most positive and inspiring experiences, both as a student and as a teacher.

There has been much written about good teaching. I have scanned several of the many journal articles on this topic to come up with some common themes that may depict what comprises good teaching. I also compared these findings with my personal experiences in public education.

A foremost characteristic of good teaching is expert knowledge of the subject matter, and of teaching methodologies (Woolfolk, 2004). Expert knowledge can be derived by being a good college student making preparations to teach, and through dedication to acquiring the necessary subject matter knowledge to be on the cutting edge of ones selected field. I personally have seldom ever experienced good teaching by someone with weak knowledge of subject matter information. However, expert teachers with little expert knowledge in subject matter may exude expert teaching through acquired skills and expertise in other areas such as, knowledge of general teaching strategies, proper use of curriculum material, knowledge of characteristics and cultural background of their students, the most appropriate settings in which students best learn, and overall knowledge of the general goals of education (Woolfolk, 2004, p. 6). This process, of course usually takes time and experience.

An example of characteristics mentioned above is supported by a position statement of the International Reading Association in which they argue, "Every child deserves excellent reading teachers because teachers make a difference in children's reading achievement and motivation to read," (International Reading Association, 2000, p. 235). This position statement provides a research-based description of the distinguishing qualities of excellent classroom reading teachers. According to the International Reading Association, excellent reading teachers share several critical qualities of knowledge and practice:

  1. They understand reading and writing development and believe all children can learn to read and write.
  2. They continually assess children's individual progress and relate reading instruction to children's previous experiences.
  3. They know a variety of ways to teach reading, when to use each method, and how to combine the methods into an effective instructional program.
  4. They offer a variety of materials and texts for children to read.
  5. They use flexible grouping strategies to tailor instruction to individual students.
  6. They are good reading "coaches" (2000, p.235)

Another common theme encountered in journal articles is the practice of "reflective teaching" (Woolfolk, 2004; Montgomery & Thomas, 1998). Reflective teachers think back over their day-to-day situations in an attempt to analyze their teaching skills, the subject matter, motivation of the students, and how they might improve upon the overall learning process. Gore's work (as cited in Montgomery & Thomas, 1998. p. 372) suggests that the ideas of reflective teaching methodology in teacher preparation go back to Dewey (1904, 1933). Gore (as cited in Montgomery & Thomas, 1998) lists others (Archmuty, 1980; Cruickshank, 1985; Schafer, 1967; Zeichner, 1981-1982) who have acknowledged the importance of reflection to prepare teachers for continuing growth. What does reflection yield in providing teachers the proper feedback by which they may become better teachers? Montgomery and Thomas (1998) remind us of the initial comment made in the opening paragraph of this essay when they conducted reflective research to answer such questions as: 'What are the best and worst things a teacher can do?' `What do teachers do that helps? What do teachers do that hurts? What advice do you have for teachers? What rules would you like to make for the teacher?' The authors discovered the following four basic themes that children defined as that which makes good teachers: Gentleness, caring, understanding, and fun-loving. These attributes are what most impact students in a positive manner. In contrast to gentleness, children indicated that harshness and yelling makes them feel small, guilty, hurt, and embarrassed. In contrast to caring, children hurt when they are not treated fairly. Furthermore, what they often want most is to be listened to. In contrast to understanding, children feel a loss of power to choose, to be heard, and to be understood. And finally, in contrast to fun-loving, and a sense of humor, students feel bored, and school becomes drudgery (Montgomery & Thomas, 1998).

Speaking more on the topic of a sense of humor, I can easily recall an outstanding science teacher who I had in high school. He demonstrated a wonderful sense of humor. Through his antics, jokes, metaphors, and impersonations, my science classes became fun and exciting. In support of this notion, Ziv (1988) conducted two experiments concerning humor in teaching and learning in higher education. The first study used relevant humor in a one-semester statistics course in an experimental group and no humor in a control group. One hundred sixty-one students participated, and the results showed significant differences between the two groups in favor of the group learning with humor. The second experiment was a replication of the first one, using 132 students in a one-semester introductory psychology course. The students (all females) were divided randomly into two groups. Humor was used in one, and the same teacher taught the second group without using humor. Again, significant differences were found: The group studying with humor had higher scores on the final exam. Indications support my experiences in school, i.e., humor in the classroom enhances not only interest in the subject matter, but better performance by students.

The above-mentioned characteristics of good teaching reflect the feedback from students, results from scientific studies, and reflection by teachers. One more source of input on what constitutes good teaching is derived from those who hire teachers, namely the school administrators. What qualities do school administrators seek in prospective teachers? In a 1998 study (Kesten, Lang, Ralph, and Smith (1998) conducted with Canadian school administrators, the school district hiring preferences in a Western Canadian province were depicted. These Canadian school administrators ranked the following attributes of good teaching as prerequisites for hiring:

  1. Establishing positive classroom climate
  2. Building/maintaining rapport with students
  3. Classroom management/discipline
  4. Personal qualities (e.g., creativity)
  5. Using communication/interpersonal skills
  6. Planning/preparing for instruction
  7. Maintaining rapport with parents/community
  8. Using instructional methods/strategies
  9. Building/maintaining rapport with staff
  10. Using instructional skills (e.g., explaining)
  11. Knowledge of subject matter
  12. Using evaluation/assessment procedures
  13. Extracurricular work
  14. Professional development
  15. Knowledge of core curriculum
  16. Record keeping/reporting
  17. Multi-/cross-cultural sensitivity
  18. Using computers/e-mail (Kesten, Lang, Ralph, and Smith (1998, p. 47)

An interesting note about the differences between good female teachers versus good male teachers emerged from a 1993 study by Goodwin and Stevens. Although they found relatively few gender differences between male and female teachers, in general, the findings suggest that female professors might place greater value or importance on, or be more interested in, enhancing students' self-esteem and in encouraging student interaction and participation in class. Female professors also appear to be more interested in seeking "outside" assistance in attempting to improve their teaching; male professors appear to place greater value on students' evaluations than females. However, all professors seem to share similar views about what constitutes "good" teaching, and about the appropriate outcomes of "good" teaching.

In turning to my personal subjective experiences from working in public education for 25 years, I have to agree with the importance of the affective domain as suggested by Woolfolks (2004); Montgomery and Thomas (1998); and especially Ziv (1988). It is my contention that good teaching meets the emotional needs of students initially and is a prerequisite for sound learning. If a student does not feel important, understood, cared for, respected, honored as a human being, and loved by his or her teacher, the full potential for stellar learning will be left in the wake of unfulfilled emotional needs. Patricia Montgomery (Montgomery & Thomas, 1998) sums it up best:

One afternoon as I stood in line at the grocery store, I struck up a conversation with the two children behind me. I told them that I was a college student studying to be a teacher. As we talked, I asked them, `What are the best and worst things a teacher can do?' Sarah said, `The best thing is when the teacher plays music while we work--you know, the kind without words.' She went on to explain, `The worst thing is when she yells at us.' James quickly joined in saying, 'The best thing is when you finish your work and the teacher lets you go outside--you know, when you can just hang out and be free. The worst thing is when she throws things.'

Interesting experience, I thought as I walked out of the store. Another child, who had overheard our conversation, stopped me at the door and said, "You know that stuff about yelling, you know what--it hurts my soul."
(p. 372)


Goodwin, L. D. & Stevens, E. A.(1993).The Influence of Gender on University Faculty Members' Perceptions of "Good" Teaching. Journal Title: Journal of Higher Education, 64 (2) 166-172.Ohio State University Press.

International Reading Association (2000). Excellent Reading of Teachers. The Reading Teacher, 54 (2). 235-241. International Reading Association. Inc.

Kesten, C., Lang, H., Ralph, E., & Smith, D. (1998). Hiring New Teachers: What Do School Districts Look For? Journal of Teacher Education, 49 (1) 47-55. Gale Group: Corwin Press, Inc.

Montgomery, P. & Thomas, J. On Becoming a Good Teacher: Reflective Practice with Regard to Children's Voices. Journal of Teacher Education. Volume, 49 (5). 372-381 Gale Group: Corwin Press, Inc

Woolfolk, A. (2004). Educational Psychology. 9th Ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Ziv, A. (1988). Teaching and Learning with Humor: Experiment and Replication. Journal of Experimental Education, 57 (1) 14-18.

Glenn Schuyler
Walden University Student

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