What Makes A Good Teacher/Professor

So after the considerable amount of controversy my Rate My Professor article stirred up, I decided to start a mini-series (that sounds so much cooler than saying, “two articles”) on what it takes to be considered a good teacher/professor, and on the flip side, what makes a good student?  I took a considerable amount of flack for suggesting that teachers should have certain attributes in the RMP article, and so naturally I feel I should illustrate just why those flack-givers are absolutely wrong (or possibly show just how dumb my argument is).

Starting On Your Professor All-Stars…

For me, the perfect case study of a great professor is George MacLean at the University of Manitoba.  This guy intimidates me with how great he actually is.  Some day, I honestly hope someone writes a book about him in order to do his accomplishments justice, but until then, this underappreciated blog entry will have to do!  Maclean is a political studies professor, and before you take my word that he is qualified (what do I really know) have a look at his CV.  Now that would be an incredible resume for a retired professor, I mean Department Head, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, etc.  The guys has published 6 books, been a contributing author to a couple dozen more, and has penned so many journal articles it makes my head hurt (I have one published journal article… it is not easy).  The greatest part about that CV is that I figure MacLean is about 40-43.  He got his BA in 1990.  Anyone want to say he took more than 3 years to get it?  He was a full Ph.D by the time most people are starting to figure out what they really want to do in life.  He has accomplished more before middle age than most academics will accomplish in their careers!  When I took a couple of Professor MacLean’s courses at the U of M, he would casually mention how he had “helped out” on this UN study, or had been a part of a team that went to some war-torn place.  It was all mentioned very modestly, but one could tell this guy was for real.

The Difference Between Good and Great

George MacLean
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Now you want to know the best part?  That is only the very base of what makes him a good teacher.  Clearly, to be seen as an authority on a topic you should have a considerable level of expertise.  G-Mac (as we affectionately called the man) obviously has that in spades; but, what made him a truly great professor was that he loved being a teacher and took pride EVERY DAY in not just being smart, but in communicating.  Just about any professor with a CV like Professor MacLean’s is never seen by undergrads.  Many of them view undergrads as a necessary evil, and that it is beneath their lofty standards to talk to these peons.  Many more simply enjoy working with graduate students and doing administrative work at the higher levels.  G-Mac has obviously done his fair share of work at the top of the food chain, but yet he chooses to teach an intro to politics course EVERY YEAR.  He actually choses to deal with people who have no idea what they’re talking about, and many of them probably won’t even continue on in the field.  His head must hurt some days when he realizes how much smarter he is than everyone else in the room – yet he never gave that impression, and he continues to teach the course with so much gusto and pizazz that my little brother decided to take a full degree in the faculty after taking this one class with him.

#1500 In Your Course Calendar #1 In Your Hearts

Professor MacLean looked over every single paper and exam that got written.  He was right up front in saying that he had two graduate markers to help him, but he guaranteed that he looked over every single paper before signing for the mark.  That is some serious commitment to 18 year-olds from a guy who writes books on international relations.  Every year he organizes one of the best political conferences in Canada on a shoestring budget (a true testament to his connections and charisma).  The coolest thing about G-Mac is simply the enthusiasm he brought to every class.  Now that I teach for a living, I can honestly say that I have no idea how he brought that much energy for 80 minutes twice a week.  The whole class you would actually be pumped up to see what was coming next just because he taught it as if it were a revelation to him that he had recently experienced (even though he has been teaching the course for years).  He was such an entertaining speaker, and so knowledgeable, that a solid percentage of people in any given lecture were actually just dropping in and weren’t even registered in the class.

The Man, The Myth

Just to give a full picture of this man/academic demi-god that is George MacLean, I attended a couple social functions that he was present at.  While in school I was on several councils, and we would often be invited to events, or invited to bartend events (both had their perks).  Turns out the guy isn’t just brilliant and charismatic, he’s actually a pretty decent guitar player and has his own band as well.  Naturally a guy like that has a great looking wife.  About the biggest knock on the guy I have is that his dancing was mediocre (which at a party full of professors, means he was still easily the best there).

A Toast – To The Real Most Interesting Man

So here’s to you George MacLean.  Here’s to your energy, dedication, work ethic, modesty and brilliance.  Hopefully one day a writer better than I will more accurately portray your merits, but for now, hopefully you’re satisfied with being held up as a paragon of teaching greatness.  A superb professor/teacher should be smart yes, but that should be a prerequisite for any professor.  To be considered elite, a professor should endeavour to care about their subject, show passion, work on their communication skills, have high expectations and standards, but then supply the support and tools to allow you reach those standards.  They don’t have to be an easy grader, just consistent and clear in what they expect.  The ideal professor has a work ethic that is second-to-none, is never satisfied with their knowledge base, and takes a real joy in giving others the gift of knowledge that they themselves have received.  If only more profs were like G-Mac who knows just how great the university/college experience could be?  Oh, by the way, he is rated extremely high in RMP and has a stream of testimonials left by the “irresponsible youth of today who don’t know what good teaching is.”  I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

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I still remember my favorite professor. He was in the religion department, and was THE guy on the History Channel every Easter season when they did their documentaries on the historical Jesus. When my prof retired, students threw HIM a party and wrote songs in his honor. He was an inspiration.

Great article. Having a professor like that can be transformational. I was blessed to have several through undergraduate work (history) and then seminary. When a professor/teacher brings that much energy to a classroom experience it isn’t a challenge to come to class (for him/her and for the students!).

12 years ago

He sounds like the Canadian Greg Mankiw! That is an impressive CV.

When I was at USC, I had a few all stars like that in the classroom. There was a policy in place that every professor had to pick up at least one undergraduate course. The University President at the time even taught a business class (!).

Sounds like an AWESOME teacher, I’ve never had one that great.

12 years ago

Great article. That sounds like an awesome teacher.

Like Jen above, never had one THAT good!

Will include in my Weekend Reading roundup!

12 years ago

Very well said. A great teacher is someone who cares passionately about the students and the content and can bring that content to life in the classroom.

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