One of the most prominent signs of optimism among distinguished teaching professors is their zealous belief in the power of their teaching. We found that, although they acknowledged that students can learn without a teacher, our teacher-scholars believed that they could enhance the learning process. Describing their roles as "learners," "catalysts in learning," and "cooperative-artists, who, like the farmer or physician, can produce powerful results that might not occur naturally," they exuded confidence and optimism. Another optimistic metaphor for the role of teacher was expressed by Dr. R., who saw the role of the teacher as a midwife (as in Plato's Theaetetus) who "tenderly assists the pregnant woman with the delivery of her offspring. So too (he reported), the teacher assists the inquiring mind of the learner to give birth to knowledge and to facilitate discovery." Dr. R. said that college teachers are responsible for educating prospective leaders "not to worship knowledge, but to question it!" As an English professor, he stated that his role was to participate and interact creatively with his students to provide them with the ability to use language "to access their humanity through their most powerful, creative and stimulating thoughts and emotions - to search for new ideas, to challenge old ones, and to wrestle riddles."
Implicit in such views are the assumptions that everyone has the power to be creative and powerful, that new ideas exist, and that riddles can be solved. Through their language and their actions, our teacher-scholars constantly projected beliefs that life can improve, that students can learn, that human progress is possible. As Professor D. said, "Teaching is one of those professions where you can make a difference, and while you can see the change, the frustration of never knowing the final impact keeps life interesting. I would like others to see my 'role as teacher' as one which is lofty, and most people do."
One of the simplest, most direct ways in which our excellent teachers displayed optimism was by trusting their own ability to improve as teachers. Many of the distinguished teachers spoke of working diligently on their own performance. Dr. D. wrote, "I believe students will always learn from your constant striving to be true to yourself and improve." Others asked students to help them to become better teachers and said that they listened.
Inevitably, teachers encounter human weaknesses and limitations. However, the outstanding teachers we observed did not attack students when they were not prepared. Instead they guided them towards positive behaviors such as studying more, attending class, or trying new techniques. When students were apprehensive about trying new methods they offered assurances and positive predictions. For example, Dr. C. told students: "This should take only 30 seconds, and you'll get better at it as you gain experience." And Dr. D. assured one man who was concerned about "a lot of red marks" on a draft paper that he would "catch on if he attended to the instructorÕs comments, and that he had the typical problems of style of a nontraditional student, that is, he had forgotten how to write simply and clearly, and had instead written in a stilted style." The implication was that the student already knew how to write well, and that the ability would return.
One eternal and universal truth about education is that some students fail - that not all students will sufficiently grasp the material in the time allotted. Our award-winning professors seemed to have reached an uneasy truce with this fact of life. Some were philosophical, offering advice and "pearls of wisdom" to students, though they understood that a large part of students' learning was "up to them." Dr. H. found this to be the hardest part of his teaching. He anticipated that as many as 25% of his human anatomy classes would not earn a grade C or higher, and thus would have to repeat the course to remain in their programs. When students who were doing poorly asked for help, Dr H. was willing to spend hours with them. For example, he taught them how to stay optimistic while learning the huge lexicon of anatomy by focusing on positive achievements rather than negative (what they hadn't done) when they studied. With a group of students who were weak writers, he wrote his own model essay answers to each test question, gave them to the students, and asked them to revise their own for a higher grade to be averaged in. This unwillingness to accept human limitations is a mark of the excellent teacher.
Another quality of those who possess the intrapersonal intelligence of optimism is self-motivation, or "initiative." Although most faculty are called upon at some time to develop new courses, our teacher-scholars appear to relish the opportunity to create something new. They can often be found among those who are engaged in curricular "visioning" and "re-visioning." Curricular reform appears to be fun for them: It stimulates their creative juices and pushes them to explore new territories, to become the engaged learners that they seek to create. Recall, for example, that Professor H. took the initiative to enroll in a medical school anatomy course in order to prepare for his course in human anatomy, and he had developed another new course and a computer software anatomy atlas in the past few years; Professor G. was breaking new ground with a course on "Women in Mathematics"; Professor C. was the creator of a university apprenticeship system for lab assistants; and Professor D. taught a new university studies interdisciplinary course, "1950s-1990s, DŽjˆ Vu." Several of our case study subjects had also traveled all over the world on sabbaticals; Dr. R. had his own consulting business; and Dr. F. was busy professionally, assisting her professional organization in publishing proceedings of a conference on a website. All of these activities are evidence of initiative. These creative teachers could not resist the opportunity to play with the curriculum, to stir up the existing structures, and to push the boundaries of their disciplines, their professions, and their lives.
It's in the TLC library, and you're welcome to borrow it.
Downloaded from the Tomorrow's Professor listserv, September 19, 2000. The except is from the chapter, "Distinguished Teaching: A new Way of Viewing the Character of Excellence," in Successful College Teaching: Problem Solving Strategies of Distinguished Professors (Allyn & Bacon, 1998, pp.112-115). Reprinted with permission.