Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

A slightly abridged version of this paper was published as an op-ed in The Record, 11 December 1999. Published on the web, August 2003.

What makes a teacher great? Or terrible?

I asked the 77 students in my first-year university course to call to mind the single best teachers they had had in elementary and secondary school. "Of the 30 or 40 teachers you had before you came to university," I said, "think of the one for whom you are most grateful."

I asked my students also to bring to mind the worst teachers in their experience.

Then I asked each student to write on a single sheet of paper a few sentences explaining what made the best teacher so good, and the worst teacher so bad. I asked them not to write their own or the teachers' names. Our goal, I explained, was to identify qualities that distinguish superb teachers from lousy ones.

We traded the papers around in class and discussed them there. Then I took them home for more systematic analysis. Here are the results.

Strong sentiments

The intensity of the comments was startling. Both the best and worst teachers had left deeper imnpressions than I would have guessed. While most teachers cited were from the upper years of high school, some were remembered from the early elementary years, as far back as Grade One.

The praise for the good teachers was unrestrained, the gratitude to them profound. Five students even identified them, contrary to my direction, as if they wanted to shout their names from the housetops.

The worst teachers evoked similarly strong sentiments. Four were described as evil, another as "the most ignorant, whining crybaby of a teacher in the history of Canada."

Inattention to technique

Remarkably, the statements gave scant attention to technique or props. Not one student cited the best teachers' use of computers, videos, overhead projectors, laser pointers or lab equipment. Just one mentioned a field trip. One said the worst teacher spoke in a monotone. In general, the students simply ignored the methods, skills, and audio-visual aids commonly emphasized in teacher training.

Maybe the pedagogical skills of great teachers are so finely honed as to escape students' notice. Maybe their performance is so well rehearsed it seems natural. On the other hand, great teaching may involve transcending the mind-set of performance and skill.

Inattention to competence

No less remarkably, few of the statements cited the best teachers' extraordinary knowledge of their fields. One was described as "extremely educated." Of another the student wrote, "His knowledge of math is staggering." But only a handful of students made comments like these.

Similarly, a few students faulted the worst teachers for intellectual incompetence. "When I moved on," one wrote, "I found that most of what she taught is wrong anyway." Another marvelled at "an English teacher who could not spell simple words."

A handful of the worst teachers appear to have been genuinely out of their depth. "He would put solutions to problems on the board, but they were wrong and then he'd have to try again."

But few of the bad teachers were described this way. Indeed, one student chose as his worst teacher a man who was "too smart" and who "hated teaching elementary concepts." Another identified a man who "came across as a know-it-all."

Good teachers care

If neither technique nor competence distinguished the best teachers from the worst ones in the statements my students handed in, what did?

Two qualities, both of which fairly leapt out of the papers handed in.

First was relationship to students. The best teachers were described as interacting with students in a caring, constructive, respectful, reciprocal way. They learned students' names, took time to explain things, gave feedback, and graded fairly. They had a sense of humour. Here are a dozen ways they were described.

"They neither tried to lord their authority over me nor dismissed that authority for a more relaxed relationship, but rather saw order and structure as matters of fact—they were more concerned about the learning taking place."
"She would kick me in the ass to make me realize my potential."
"A great sense of compassion. He gave everyone a chance to prove themselves to be the best they could be."
"She spoke to her students as if they were real people."
"He writes full-page comments on every kid's essay. He has the coolest view of the world. He teaches kids how to think for themselves. Also, he is really funny."
"Cared whether students learned something, paid extra attention to each student instead of just one, treated everyone equally."
"He spent his time looking at the students as individuals. At any time, no matter what the problem, you could go and talk to him and he'd listen."
"He was tough, but he made me feel like we were all part of history."
"She was very smart and taught a tough class, but very fair, and she made me learn a lot."
"She was known to be one of the hardest teachers in the school, but this was to show you how you could expand your learning."
"My Grade 3 teacher was from Haiti. He was the first coloured person I had ever met and the first to show and teach me the importance of compassion. I've tried to follow the examples he showed everyday, and I think it's made me a better person."
"Brought out a part of me I never knew. I expressed myself differently and became more confident due to his support and encouragement."

Bad teachers demean

The worst teachers, by contrast, were remembered for the way they humiliated their charges, behaved toward them in a demeaning, condescending, destructive way. Students said these teachers yelled and screamed, punished without just cause, and played favourites. As before, here are twelve quotations.

"She made every single person in her presence feel like an idiot."
"She hated everyone in her classes and enjoyed calling people names and making them feel stupid."
"He was the epitome of evil. He would tear you apart if you said something wrong. The fact that he was my worst teacher, yet I was the teacher's pet, should tell you just how mean he really was."
"I hated him because he was very mean and not flexible or open to his students."
"Cared nothing for students. If you were not the favourite, you would be moved to the rear of the room and be forgotten about."
"Physically attacked me once in front of the whole class and then told the principal I was lying when I went to him."
"He made me feel incompetent and insignificant. As a class, with all the criticism we received, we felt condemned."
"She wouldn't show any interest in anything we did. It seemed like her only purpose was to pump information out and that was it."
"Sure, she knew her material, but she didn't teach it in a pleasant way."
"Brought a whole new dimension to the word evil. She took pleasure in berating students."
"I think he purposely tried to confuse the class."
"A mean, sadistic woman, she did her best to try and make me fail."

Love vs. hate for the job

If relation to students was the main thing that separated the best from the worst teachers, relation to the subject matter was a close second.

The best teachers loved their jobs. "His passion for literature and his endless quest for perfectly structured sentences inspired me to be the most competent student possible."

The jobs these teachers loved were not narrowly conceived. "He taught us more than school work, he taught us about life." "He was supportive of my plans and aspirations for the future, offering useful advice without trying to steer my decisions." "This person not only taught us the subject matter but also about life."

The worst teachers, on the other hand, were seen as no fonder of their jobs than of their students. "He was miserable and he hated his job and proved to be a real jerk." "He made it clear he didn't enjoy teaching." "She did not like what she was teaching."

These teachers seemed to define their jobs more narrowly or bureaucratically. "He didn't know anything besides math. He was a cold-hearted person. He always put people down."

Keeping sex out of it

Since I did not ask my students to indicate their sex, I cannot say whether males and females differed in the kind of teachers chosen as best or worst. The content of their statements showed little evidence of the gender wars often celebrated in the media. As the comments above illustrate, what mattered was not sexual allegiance but the quality of classroom relationships.

Further analysis reinforced this point. By the pronouns students used, I could identify the sex of 59 of the best teachers and 63 of the worst. My class consisted mainly of women. Sixty-four percent of the teachers they considered the best were men, while 59 percent of those they considered the worst were women.

What the statements showed was honest concern for learning, and disapproval of teachers allowing sex to cloud teacher-student relationships.

Two of the worst male teachers were explicitly faulted in this regard. One was described as "seriously creepy! He kept students after class and hit on them." The other "treated the guys like shit, and was very touchy-feely with the girls."

Two of the worst female teachers were similarly criticized. One "spoke of irrelevant things, i. e. her sex life." The other "was only interested in flirting with the guys on the hockey team."

Implications for school administration

Retrospective student opinion is hardly the only way to identify what makes a teacher excellent or terrible. Nor can one generalize with confidence from my first-year Arts students to the population as a whole.

Still, my students' statements are worth pondering, given how much they agreed on what makes good teachers good and bad ones bad. Besides, this little study corroborates the results of larger-scale research. Nor is it seriously skewed towards the humanities. Indeed, while thirteen of their worst teachers were described as in mathematics or science, so were eight of their best teachers. English teachers, too, appeared on both lists.

If we take the views of my students seriously, the practical question is what they imply for promoting good teaching in our schools. Surely few of the worst teachers in my students' recollections started out hating their jobs and putting students down. How can their tragedy be prevented, and the likelihood of good teaching be enhanced?

The basic lesson of this study is for everyone—ministry officials, school administrators, parents, taxpayers, teachers, students—involved in running our schools. The chief focus must be kept on learning. Intellectual ability and pedagogical technique are only indirect and secondary criteria for evaluating teachers.

he primary criteria are how much a teacher cares whether students learn, and how successfully a teacher relates to students toward this end.

As to how school authorities can help teachers succeed, I venture an hypothesis. It is by treating teachers the way the best teachers treat students: like real people, in a fair, respectful, reciprocal way, not lording it over them or making them feel stupid but listening to them and providing feedback, thereby helping them all to be their best.