The Greatest Teacher You Ever Had

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Feb 21, 2019

I have been thinking a lot lately about how I became interested in learning experience (LX) design. I have always told my team that my “worst teacher” experience propelled me into learning. When I was in 11th grade, I landed in the honors Physics class.  Back then, many science teachers focused 100% on left brain processing–which meant that right brainers like me were often left confused. Three times a week, I went in after school to see Mr. Hughes and ask him to clarify something.  In mid-November, Mr. Hughes patted me on the head and told me never to come in again–I just didn’t the brains for physics. Wow! #WorstTeachingMoment

In contrast, across the hall was Mr. Bennett, my American Studies teacher.  He inspired, shared his passion for literature and culture, gave us a kick in the butt, and set the bar really high!  #GreatestTeacher

I asked my friends about their favorite teaching experience…Tracey remembers her math teacher, Mr. Jockers and she said  “He connected with each student to understand their levels of strength and weaknesses thorough humor–always making it fun but not making fun of anyone. It’s no wonder I ended up working with numbers for a living.”

Similarly, my sister-in-law, Kim, ended up as a biology professor because a science teacher made biology incredibly fun, interesting, AND showed that a woman could be a biologist.

My friend, Sheryl, told me about Monsieur Smith, her French teacher who “related to us teens more than the others could, taught life lessons as well as French.”

It struck me that all of these folks shared two things in common:  passion and ability to connect with each student as an individual.

As the owner of two learning experience companies for over nearly three decades, I have had the opportunity to engage with 1,000 or more teachers–some great–through interviews, focus groups and classroom visits.  And, I have seen that passion and connectivity are just the starting point for a great teacher.  There are a few other things that great teachers have in common:

An active learning practice. Every great teacher that I have encountered encourages students to learn by doing and by failing in a safe environment. This means that their lesson planning centers around engaged learning experiences, which can include: experiential activities, peer instruction, group problem-solving, simulations, cases, maker or other projects, etc.

Clarity around outcomes.  Great teachers make sure that everyone in the class is “singing from the same song sheet” by setting measurable outcomes and communicating–early and often–their expectations for mastering these outcomes.

Focus on transference. There is a large body of evidence that shows that deep learning happens when the learner is able to transfer that learning to other learners, contexts, or applications. Great teachers look to more than good grades on the exam to ensure that their students not only master the learning, but are able to transfer it to peers.

Experimentation. There is a myth that younger teachers are more likely to experiment–particularly with technology.  I have found that great teaching, not age, is the indicator for experimentation. Great teachers are not afraid to try new things and fail–or to try new things and then have to adjust and iterate. That is the natural process for learning, and should be for teaching.

It is interesting that the behaviors that I have observed in great teachers correlate directly with evidence-based best practices.  In the next few years, as I evolve as a learning experience designer and innovator, I plan to revisit these learnings and to find ways to help all teachers unleash their passions, connect with their students, and adopt these best practices.


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