Knowing who the most effective teachers are, is not that much of a mystery!

Identifying effective and innovative teachers 

Associate Professor Paul McKechnie Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University

Sydney College of Divinity has a Learning and Teaching Plan. Everything can be measured these days, after all.

In Goal 1 of this Plan, we―theoretically that’s all of us, functionally it’s the Coursework Commitee―have to ‘develop strategies for identifying effective and innovative teachers in the the SCD’. The wording goes on, but let’s pause there and consider effective and innovative teachers.

A stone statue of Gorgias of Leontini, 483-375 BC

Gorgias of Leontini was an effective and innovative teacher. Born in 483 BC, he died in 375 (if we believe all we’re told). Not given to false modesty, he used the profits from his students’ fees and set up a gold statue of himself at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, the centre of the Greek world. His teaching subject was public speaking, and demand for what he had got was running hot in democratic Greece in the fifth century.

But finding effective teachers today isn’t only a matter of looking out for the gold statues. Gorgias set his own fees and made his pitch to the moneyed classes. SCD values run more towards paying teachers modestly.

At Macquarie University there are Teaching Awards, faculty by faculty. Applications are called and staff lay out their claims to recognition, complete with references from senior colleagues and testimonials from students. New ventures in teaching have the best chance, and team-based applications are favoured. Experts judge the applications, the winners have their pictures displayed in the Library―and the best have their applications sent on for consideration for national awards.

This model rewards some high-quality work, and I’m pretty sure the judges do their best to be inclusive and fair in decision-making. To me the fatal flaw is the system of putting oneself forward. I tell myself I’m not too lazy to write the elaborate application; but something inside me says that someone else thinking what I’m doing ought to be rewarded is a prerequisite. This is why I’ve never applied for a Teaching Award, and I don’t think I ever will.

So how does anyone know who the most effective teachers are? Actually it’s not that much of a mystery.

At the beginning of last year, in our Department, we were joined by a history lecturer who came to us from the University of Queensland. Not long after, I met his old boss.  ‘I’m sorry about poaching Dr. N from you,’ I said―not that I repented in a genuine way. It was only politeness. And I guess Dr. N had his reasons for wanting to move.

‘Well, he was our best academic,’ said his former boss. People know. In Coursework Committee we agreed: we could ask Academic Deans at the Teaching Bodies and they could tell us who were the best teachers in their colleges. Once in a while they might be wrong, but most of the time they know very well who’s the best. Still, the danger is that even asking these paragons of wisdom to nominate the best for a Teaching Award would have more against it than in its favour.

Here’s the difficulty: being interesting is a bar we all have to surmount, and afterwards, it’s very much a matter of horses for courses.

Long ago in the university where I then was, we had to appoint a lecturer in Roman history. We made a short list and studied the applications, then two others and I called the five people on the list. Before the telephone interviews, I knew who I thought I wanted to talk my colleagues into hiring: degree from a fine university, top-quality research in an area I was interested in. On paper, others seemed just about as good―but Dr. M, I thought, had got something they couldn’t quite equal.

Then we made the calls. Telephone interviews, I’m ready to admit, are a terrible way to make decisions. Better if we could have afforded the thousands to bring the interviewees to us. But at least they all had the same chance―and afterwards, I had to confess that my pre-interview favourite had blown it. Dr. M was learned, all right, but―as he came across on the phone―he was obviously, fatally, dull. In a small department, teaching in a general decree in a Humanities faculty, dullness can’t be tolerated. Youth, old age, ugliness, foreign accents, unpopular beliefs, general eccentricity―any or all of these may be harmless. But dullness can lose us all our students and leave the rest of us out of work. We hired someone more interesting.

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