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Conversation #4: Master Teachers

William Buskist

"It's just so much fun to live on the edge. And I think that's what you do as a teacher. If you take it seriously and you're excited about it and you want your students to do well, it is living on the edge."

A conversation with Dr. William Buskist of Auburn University about master teachers.

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H: Today we are talking with William Buskist, a distinguished professor in the teaching of psychology at Auburn University and a faculty fellow at Auburn Biggio Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. Dr. Buskist has published over 30 books and articles on teaching, and he is a co-recipient of Auburn's highest teaching honor. He’s a past president of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Bill, thanks for talking with me today.

B: Well thanks, I’m glad to be here, looking forward to it.

H: You’ve done so much work in teaching and specifically the teaching of psychology. What I though what we could focus on today is your research on master teachers.

B: Sure.

H: And to begin with I just thought that we'd start by just defining the term for those who never heard this term. What does that mean, "master teaching"?

B: That’s a great question. I don’t know if anybody’s got a solid hand on it yet, but let me take a crack at it. We have teachers who are pretty good at what they do, we have teachers who are very good at what they do, and then we have teachers who stand far and above those folks. They just do so many things exceptionally well. The short version of the answer is that a master teacher is somebody who produces large amounts of student learning, and the students enjoy it at the same time. So learning is a pleasure for students, they’re motivated to learn, they’re motivated to come to class, they’re motivated to participate, the teacher’s able to instill in them a genuine desire for their learning. So these are people who leave a lasting impact on their students.

H: That’s interesting. So, as you think about that term, it’s got a student focus instead of a teacher performance focus?

B: Well, they’re related. I think partly what a student reacts to is the performance of the teacher. Particularly the social aspects of the situation, and that’s one thing that much research has long ignored in terms of studying the student-teacher relationship. It’s always sort of like the student is a person who is in need of knowledge for some reason, then you have the knowledge itself, then you have the teacher who conveys it. And that’s an overall simplistic model of what teaching and learning really is. Teachers understand those connections among those three variables, but they also take a look at the larger context, and they engineer a learning environment that is highly conducive and highly motivating or inspirational to these students.

H: But before we move away from the term, in your work why did you choose this term, as opposed to distinguished teacher or exceptional teacher or award winning teacher? Why did you go with master teacher?

B: It’s a term that’s been a round for a long time, and when you take a look at the master teaching literature, that’s how these authors in their research or in their musings refer to the people they’re studying or in some cases themselves. I mean there’s a small part of the literature out there that’s basically made up of books written by master teachers talking about master teaching and why they in particular have been so successful.

H: And could you name some of the books for listeners that you would recommend?

B: Oh, there’s a lot of them. We can go back into the 70’s and take a look at Ken Eble’s book. He actually wrote two volumes, The Craft of Teaching. We got Joseph Lowman in 1990’s who wrote a book called Mastering the Techniques of Teaching and then of course you got books by Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach. Stephen Brookfield has written several really good books, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher and there’s a few, The Skillful Teacher and a few other books of that manner. Most recently in the late, I guess it was not late, I guess it was in 2002, 2004, something like that, Ken Bain wrote a book called What the Best College Teachers Do. And that was really the first wide-scale attempt that met much acclaim in terms of actually in-depth study of people who are exceptionally good in the class room. He did this across all disciplines and found some interesting things.

H: And we can put a link on the website where this podcast will be broadcast, we can put a link to those books so that listeners can do that. It’s interesting that you mentioned Ken Bain’s book because I’ve read that recently, and it is just a great, really kind of empirical look at studying these characteristic of teachers, and I immediately thought of you as I was reading this cause I know that’s some of the research that you’ve done. So I wonder if you would describe your research that you’ve done in this area.

B: Sure, what Ken did was to apply very high criteria to selecting teachers across the country for inclusion in his study. They had to be much better than good teachers, and they had to meet several criteria, none of which I can think of at the moment by the way. And he actually went out, he watched them teach, he talked to them, he talked to their students and then on the basis of the information that he gathered, he wrote this very, very interesting little book which is a very quick read, and I recommend it to our listeners.

What I’ve done is to take a similar approach in some respects but then do a couple of things a little bit differently. The first thing I did was that I took a sabbatical in the late 90’s, and I sort of anticipated what Bain was going to do in his book, and I stopped at various colleges large and small, up the eastern seaboard up into Canada. And I interviewed teachers across disciplines, in some cases I got to watch them teach, in some cases I got to talk to their students. And on the basis of that I came up with a sort of a top ten list of things that these folks did that I was able to observe in a classroom or when I interviewed them. So I started by actually watching these very, very good teachers in action in the classroom or in the laboratory or in the studio, wherever they happen to be.

And you know, I found some things, for example, that key to success in their teaching is not to teach just about facts and figures. They learn about facts and figures, they learn about teaching problem skills and teaching students how to think about whatever their discipline facts and figures happen to be. They were incredibly enthusiastic about their content of their courses, about their students, and about teaching in itself. So it’s not just enthusiasm for, in our case, psychology, or biology, or zoology. They were excited about being in the classroom. These were people who wanted to be there, and they made it a point to let their students know that they were very excited about their job as a teacher.

H: How did that concretely come out? I mean is that something they said that they did, or did you observe it? You know, what does that look like, letting students know?

B: Both. You could sort of see that when they entered that classroom, they turned on, so the persona emerged which they became not just animated but genuinely enthused about what their topic was. And you could see it in their hand gestures, you could feel it in their voice, in their facial expression, their body language, so part of it came across like that. When you talk to students about what was going on in the classroom from their perspective, they reflect that. They said “I would never want to miss a class with Dr. Smith, it just makes learning so interesting and so fun, and I wouldn’t want to miss class cause I wouldn’t want to disappoint him, I just love what we talk about and I love the fact that he is so into what he’s into.” And students pick up on that very quickly and that’s key, they love to be in a classroom with somebody who wants to be there with them as opposed to somebody who’s just going through the motions.

H: And I do want to hear some of the other characteristics that you came up with, but exploring this one a little bit, you know, that’s a theme that you do see in the literature on teaching, that enthusiasm for subjects and love of student and it comes across as so important in teaching and connecting with students. Do you think that that’s the kind of thing that can be learned?

B: I do.

H: Okay, comment on that please.

B: I do. If you take a look at the teaching literature in master teaching you’ll find lots of lists, you’ll find studies that looked at descriptors of award winning teachers, you’ll find another literature that looks at what students have to say in their evaluations of great teachers. And then you have a smaller empirical literature, and what you find is that there’s one common theme that runs through everything, and that is simply enthusiasm. But these are people who are passionate. If you listen to people like Charles Brewer and others of that stature talk about teaching, one of the things that they always address, always address, is enthusiasm for the topic. Absolutely, one of the things that we’ve done to approach this idea of master teaching a little bit differently is that we developed what we call a Teachers Behavior Checklist, and it started by simply asking students to describe the qualities of their best teachers. And we defined "best teachers" as somebody from whom they learned a great deal and enjoyed it. Sort of like I talked about earlier in the definition of master teachers. And with this research we came up with 47 qualities, which is really an unmanageable list. What we did next was we took this list of 47 qualities, gave it to another set of students, and we said here’s a list that some student colleagues have generated that describe their very best teachers. What we want you to do with this list is: Tell us how you know that a teacher, for example, is accessible, or approachable, or confident, or enthusiastic. So what these people did is to apply behaviors to these qualities, so now we not only know the quality but we also know the behaviors which represent these qualities. Does that make sense?

H: Yeah, yeah interesting.

B: So this is totally generated by students, so for example the eighth item on the Teachers Behavior Checklist is "enthusiastic about teaching and about the topic." And the behaviors that students identified are things like "smiles during class," it’s amazing how many things you can cover by simply smiling during class. "Preparing interesting class activities," in other words, it’s apparent to the students that the teachers invest some effort in that day's activities. They are full of emotion and they use gestures and facial expressions to convey those emotions, particularly when they are emphasizing important points. So if you get somebody up there who is deadpan, who otherwise lacks energy, then students infer that this person is not really excited about the topic. And then the final item that students told us was that if the teacher arrives in class, excuse me if the teacher arrives on time for class. In other words that’s a sign that the teacher cares.

H: Wow.

B: So if you're always late, you're showing up at the last minute, sort of screwing around to get your PowerPoint set up or your lecture set up, then students say, "This person doesn’t really care about us, otherwise he or she would have been here on time." So now the interesting thing about the TBC as we call it, is we thought, well, this is all well and good, and I use this a lot to evaluate my graduate student instructors that I’m training to become college professors here at Auburn. And so, you know, if they get low marks on a particular item on the TBC scale, which has 28 items now instead of 47, I can go right to these particular behaviors and say, “You know maybe you should try smiling more during class, or, you know, students commented that you're not on time to class. You really need to be there a little ahead of time, and when you’re there ahead of time, once you set up, you need to be intermingling with these students and talk to them, just chit chat. Just sort of let them know that you’re interested in their lives, and then maybe from that you can pull some information out of that context and use it in class in your examples and those kind of things."

H: Wow, so you can really target what behaviors to work with these students in.

B: Absolutely. It really helps us pinpoint where the deficits are in anybody's teaching. What we did to follow-up is that we took this list of 28 items with their attendant behaviors and we gave them to about a thousand Auburn students and a little more than a 100 Auburn faculty, and we said rate the top ten. You know, from your point of view, which of these 28 qualities/behaviors is most important to becoming a master teacher. And I was completely unprepared for the result. I thought never the two worlds shall meet. But here at Auburn there was a 60% overlap between what the students put in the top ten and what the faculty put in the top ten.

H: Wow.

B: And now we’ve taken this research to community colleges, to mid-level schools, we’ve done it in Canada, we’ve done it in Japan, and we find exactly the same thing, that there’s between a 60 and 80 percent overlap in what teachers and students feel as being critical to master teaching.

H: And, aside from enthusiasm, what are some of the other ones?

B: Oh, you mean in terms of the top ten?

H: Yeah, yeah.

B: Okay, well let me backtrack just a little bit.

H: Okay.

B: And give you some other information that I think you’ll find interesting, and the listeners will find interesting. The question naturally asked is, what aren’t in the top ten? Where do students and faculty differ?

H: Yeah, yeah.

B: And what we find is — and this is really interesting, and it's reflective of the factor analytic portion of the master teaching literature — is that students want to have a relationship with their teacher. Now, they don’t want to have a close personal relationship, but they are interested in characteristics like being understanding, or being positive in the classroom, or showing encouragement for students in the classroom, or being flexible, or open-minded. These are all social qualities. Faculty aren’t really on those kinds of social aspects. What they’re focused on, of course, is technique, they want to become better, they feel that technique is the key to teaching. Now if you listen to people like Parker Palmer, they’ll tell you just the opposite, that good teaching can not be reduced to technique, it has to do with what the teacher brings to the classroom. So faculty are interested in, for example, being prepared, being a master communicator, presenting information clearly and of course promoting critical thinking.

So that’s how they differ, what they agree on, for example, are the following: enthusiasm is the first one, it’s right up there in the top ten. Being creative and interesting — both faculty and students think it’s important to good teaching. Being respectful, being approachable, of course being knowledgeable is key, and finally, from the Auburn data, being realistic and having fair expectations of what you expect of students. And on that note, there’s a very interesting corollary. Students don’t mind tough teachers, you can be tough as nails so long as you’re not being tough as nails for tough-as-nails' sake. What students really admire in a teacher is somebody who has high standards and then helps students meet those standards.

H: Okay.

B: They just don’t leave them out there flying in the wind, they provide the necessary scaffolding to meet those particular goals and objectives that the teacher established for the class, and that is key. So this idea that you have to be easy to get a good evaluation is nonsense, and in fact that’s what all the literature shows, students in fact don’t have a whole lot of respect for easy teachers. But they admire and look forward to taking classes from teachers who are truly realistic, who have high expectations but give students the time and the tools to get there.

H: That’s inspiring stuff, and I’m sorry — I should know this — but is the TBC, have you published that somewhere, that we could put a citation?

B: Yes, it’s been published in Teaching of Psychology.

H: Okay.

B: And then we’ve done factor analytic work on it to show its reliability and validity, that also is published in Teaching of Psychology.

H: Okay, well, I’ll definitely get those references there, because I think that people listening might really want to use that in their own faculty development, or for faculty who want to, you know, especially graduate students or somebody who is really beginning and wanting to pinpoint these things.

B: You got it.

H: That’s such neat work I think.

B: It’s been a lot of fun.

H: Let me ask you, getting off the details of that a little bit, I’ve got two kind of personal type questions. One is, how did you get interested in this to begin with? How did you, you know, this whole line of research, and you’ve really become known for this in the psychology teaching circle for sure, where did this interest begin?

B: That’s a interesting question. I left graduate school with the idea that I was going to set the world on fire with laboratory research, and I really enjoyed lab research. I enjoyed data collection, I loved just mulling over data. And when I came to Auburn back in 1982 that’s exactly what the plan was, and I started out like that, and then a couple years into my career here, my department head came to me and said, “We’ve got a real problem in Introductory Psychology, it’s a mess. How about the two of us sort of revamp the course and see what we can do.” And I said sure, and so I wind up taking a look at the structure of the course, which was taught primarily by graduate students who received the book the day before classes started in the fall and said, here, you’re teaching Introductory Psychology tomorrow, prepare your syllabus. And that is not quite the right way to go about it. I think you would agree?

H: Yeah.

B: And so there were some interesting problems that we encountered in trying to design a course that would be a good course, a compelling course, and still give graduate students the experience that they need to become GTAs, effective GTAs and then for those students who were interested to become teachers of record. So I really got interested in teaching by taking a look at the problems of setting up a good, a really solid intro course. And then as I started teaching the course myself for the first couple of times it became apparent that I was not as adequate as I would like to be as a teacher, so I got into the teaching literature, and that’s where I was first exposed to the master teaching literature. And what I found there were these long list of things, you know, that to be a master teacher you need to be X, Y and Z, and I thought, well, you know, that’s all well and good, but the problem is, I don’t know how to become X, Y and Z, you know. The literature is couched in personality variables, so you know you might find that being caring or being interesting or inspiring or challenging are important qualities of master teachers, but how do you teach someone to become and to have those attributes. It sort of goes back to your question earlier, about can we teach people to be enthusiastic.

H: Right, right.

B: And so I started looking for behavioral markers in literature and couldn’t find anybody. Couldn’t find anybody who had done that kind of work. So that’s what led me to develop the TBC.

H: I have to just say I love that answer, because it also shows your own enthusiasm for teaching, the fact that working to teach graduate students better teaching is what got you interested in teaching literature.

B: Absolutely. I tell people I have the best job in the universe, that I’m teaching students to become college professors.

H: Yeah, and think of the impact it has down the line.

B: Oh, it’s been fun, it’s been absolutely a ball.

H: Well I got one last question and I’ll let you kind of give a summary or last final word here, but one other question that I wanted to ask you, and you touched on this, but how has this worked, especially since your research you did on the sabbatical and when you interview people all over, how has this affected your own teaching?

B: What’s made me much more introspective about it, it’s made me much more thoughtful and reflective about it. I try to leave no part of my teaching unexamined, so that from the minute I begin preparing for a new course, I go back and look at what I’ve done in the past, I look over my notes. When I finish a presentation or a course, I go home immediately and make notes about what I like and what I didn’t like and what needs to be changed and what doesn't need to be changed. And you know, as I’ve gotten older I've found that I have to make more changes in order to relate well, to connect well to my students who are getting younger and younger all the time. So it’s really helped make me a better teacher, and a much more thoughtful teacher and much more aware of the special issues and baggage that students bring with them to the classroom.

And for that reason even though my content may remain similar across semesters, the actual enterprise of teaching does not, because you get a new group of critics, a new group of participants every semester. And the key is to connect with them, so you may find that what worked last semester may not work at all. But then you may find what worked 20 years ago will work again, that's the great thing about teaching, it occurs in real time, it's live, and despite your best preparation you've got to be on your toes for that 50 minute period.

And I love it. That’s what so exciting about it, it’s just so much fun to live on the edge, and I think that’s what you do as a teacher. If you take it seriously and you're excited about it and you want your students to do well, it is living on the edge.

H: Yeah, yeah I agree, if you engage students, it’s a different level of risk every time.

B: Absolutely.

H: It’s a loaded word, but you know what I mean, it is a different, yeah it’s a different level every time. As we wrap up here, do you have any last words of advice you would like to offer either new teachers who are starting to teach or people that have been teaching awhile?

B: Yeah, I do, I think if you want to become a good teacher, there are few things that you can do right away, the first thing you have to do is you simply have to ask yourself: How can I become a more effective teacher? That’s where good teaching starts, trying to answer that question, and the interesting thing about that question is, is that we all have different starting points in terms of our level of goodness as a teacher. So you know, being a teacher for almost 30 years, I'm at a different level of skill than, let's say, a person right out of graduate school, but yet we can both ask the same question, “How can I become a more effective teacher than I was today?”

So it’s got to start there, and then once you decide that you want to be more effective, then you will begin reading the teacher literature, you will be searching for clues and ideas that you can use, you can smuggle under the classroom. I think the second thing is that you have to be proactive, and that’s sort of what I've been hinting at all along, I guess, is to be proactive means that you got to ask yourself that question, and then find the answers to that question. And a great way to find answers is to attend conferences, listen to podcasts such as this one, become actively involved in becoming a better teacher.

And that surprisingly is one of the key aspects of becoming a better teacher is to first be a good thief. And what I mean by that is that you have to recognize that other people do things very well in the classroom, and if you can find a way to steal their ideas, and smuggle them into your classroom and make them your own. That’s okay and nobody cares, it’s completely ethical because all good teachers want everybody else to be good teachers. And what you’ll find is, sort of like me, when you get teachers who love teaching and you talk to them, you can't shut them up, they want to share with you everything they know about teaching, and they want you to take it and use it anyway you can to make yourself a better teacher.

So I think those are a couple of ideas, you know, you have to be willing to take calculated risk in your teaching. You can't be afraid to, you know, try a new demonstration or a new slant on a topic, you know your teaching will never improve unless you want to live on the edge a little bit. I think you’ve got to understand that teaching is a social behavior and that teaching doesn’t occur in a vacuum, you got somebody on the other end who’s live and interactive and who wants to be interactive and who wants the knowledge, and you’ve got to appreciate the kinds social variables that your students bring in the classroom with you. So all those sorts of things.

H: Well, on a personal level, I must say I’m sitting at my desk here at Xavier, and I have on my bulletin board a handout from, I don’t know how many years ago, what conference this was, at APA, and you gave me this handout, "The Seven Keys to Becoming a More Effective Teacher." And number one is, "Ask how can I become a more effective teacher."

B: Right.

H: And I’ve got that on my bulletin board everyday.

B: Well thank you that’s really nice.

H: Will, it’s always a pleasure talking to you, thank you so much for your time today.

B: Thank you for the invitation. I've enjoyed it very much.

H: Bye.

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