Excellence in Teaching

By Timothy Norris posted
Often we hear the adage: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Those who have never taught seem to think that teaching is easy. How wrong they are. Indeed, for anyone who has tried to teach it quickly becomes clear that teaching is very hard to do well. It is more likely that those who can “do” cannot teach! But what is to teach well, to be an excellent teacher? I was recently asked this question and while I do have experience in the classroom and lecture hall, I failed to give a good answer. What follows is an exploration of remembrance, invisible effort, and an open mind as three principal characteristics of an excellent teacher.


The best teachers are remembered for a lifetime. Perhaps a teacher was so passionate about a subject, say physics, that she could inspire a whole room full of teenagers to awe, and then lead them through the mysteries of the universe. By the end of the class, the students walk with their heads held high and shine with the confident energy of having gained new knowledge, a new skill, or a new way of perceiving themselves and their surroundings. Without the love of a subject, there can be no excellence in teaching.[1]

A good mentor will also be remembered for a lifetime. Perhaps a teacher recognized a critical moment in the student’s life, imparted a few sage words of advice, allowed for a second chance (or not), provided an opportunity to perform meaningful work, or was simply a role model. All of these actions help define teaching excellence: connecting classroom learning to life skills, knowing when to push a student or allow them some leeway, opening doors of opportunity, and leading by doing.

Teachers who are also coaches—although not necessarily for a sport—likewise tend to be remembered for lifetime. Perhaps a teacher constantly encouraged students to learn from mistakes, to work as a team yet value individual performance, to constantly monitor improvements, and to take care of themselves body, mind and soul. This teacher’s influence, technique, and approach will cross generations as the students carry these skills through their lives. Through coaching principles such as concentrating on positives, amplifying success, having fun, assessing skills, and promoting team spirit the students will perform better both individually and in groups.[2] Love of a subject, mentoring for life, and positive coaching are all ways to be remembered and the marks of an excellent teacher.

Invisible Effort

Sometimes it is not what we are remembered for, but our invisible effort that is most important. With teaching this is also true. Curriculum development, class preparation, student assessment, and professional development all require much effort that is often not recognized. Those who teach know that this work is often done outside of regular work hours as uncompensated labor. A sure sign of teaching excellence is a love of lifelong learning where evenings are spent playing with new ideas, techniques, and materials; money and time are invested in maintaining professional networks through conferences, conversations, and engagement with literature; and there is a constant effort to connect subject specific knowledge to broader interdisciplinary conversations, provide context, and transform learned facts and information into knowledge. Even the most mundane of tasks, such as grading papers, can be recognized as an opportunity to enter into conversation with a student, provide positive yet critical feedback, and perhaps even learn something. Or the effort needed to prepare for a classroom teaching module is recognized as an opportunity to revisit old materials, discover new frontiers of knowledge, and learn something new. Only with this kind of invisible effort outside of the classroom can there be excellence in teaching.

Open Mindedness

Another adage that we often hear is that a mind only functions when it is open. This is particularly true for teaching excellence, but is not only the students’ minds that must be open. The teacher must also keep an open mind and let the students teach themselves, teach each other, and even teach the teacher. Young people are amazing and an excellent teacher never forgets this. The classroom should be a safe place to express ideas, experiment, and together explore and create knowledge. It is not possible for the teacher to fill the student like an empty vessel. With an open mind the teacher instead facilitates a collaborative attempt to interpret reality, and the notions of “giving” and “receiving” in education fall to the wayside.[3] This is a lofty goal and I cannot claim to have mastered this pedagogical technique, yet when I think of excellent teachers from my past, aspects of this kind of relationship building, and perhaps even community building, are evident in their work. Indeed, it is these kinds of learning relationships that are memorable and likely have a lifelong passion of invisible effort behind them.

I look to all of these examples when I try to define teaching excellence. An excellent teacher does not teach simply because he or she cannot do, as George Bernard Shaw (in)famously penned.[4] Excellent teachers choose their profession because they are good at teaching and they love to do it. They are often not driven by worldly or material goals, but instead see their work as a way to make a difference. Shaw’s words should remind us that we need to recognize excellence in teaching more actively, more publicly, and more proudly. The excellent teachers are those that live with us forever. 

Timothy Norris is a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation at the University of Miami Libraries.

[1] While this story comes from one of my high-school teachers, through the SCWIBLES program at UCSC I was fortunate enough to work with several of these teachers when I was an adult (http://scwibles.ucsc.edu/).

[2] Disclaimer: I was a soccer coach for four seasons and I joined the positive coaching alliance for this time. (http://www.positivecoach.org/). The parallels between excellence in teaching and excellence in coaching are remarkable. I also had several incredible coaches when I was younger; I remember them all.

[3] From Paolo Freire (1970), Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

[4] "He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches." George Bernard Shaw (1903), “Maxims for Revolutionists” in Man and Superman.