Helping professors get noticed for good teaching

Q & A

March 22, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writer

It's no secret that most college professors earn more money and prestige not by how well they perform in the classroom, but by how much, and how often, they publish scholarly articles.

Oh, an outstanding college teacher might win a teaching award once in awhile, but aside from looking good on a resume, the honor gets him or her little else.

Dr. Hoke L. Smith, president of Towson State University, has an idea that would more fairly recognize good college teaching, while providing good teachers a chance to make themselves more marketable.

He and his wife, Dr. Barbara E. Walvoord, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, recently published an article calling for a nationwide, college teacher "certificate" program, in which good teachers could earn a credential certifying their excellence in the classroom.

Q: Would you define good and bad teaching at the college level? It's probably safe to say that anyone who's attended college has opinions on the subject.

A: I've seen good teachers who were very dry lecturers, but so well-organized the students followed them all the way. A good teacher is one who relates to the students, who knows the material, and is interested in students learning.

A bad teacher is one who doesn't know the material, or is not interested in the spirit of the student learning.

Some professors are bad teachers for some students. Some professors are just not very good teachers; they don't communicate, or they have difficulty relating to students.

If you ask me a percentage, I'd say bad teaching comes from 5 percent of the total number people teaching in college classrooms. That percentage may be high. For good teaching, in most institutions it's 30 to 40 percent, maybe 50 percent of the total.

Q: If bad teaching exists, why have colleges and universities tolerated it?

A: Probably for the same reason that people tolerate poor newspaper articles and headlines -- it's difficult to do something about it.

A lot of the bad teaching is not tolerated. And a lot of people don't get tenure because they're not good teachers.

Sometimes you will get a faculty member who goes stale, has a personality change. And toleration implies that the only alternative is to fire them.

Very often, there are other forms of inducements or career development to encourage them, and support them in changing.

Q: Your proposal would provide a way for outstanding teachers to be recognized as excellent teachers. Isn't tenure -- really, job security -- supposed to be recognizing them as excellent teachers?

A: Tenure recognizes them as excellent faculty members, but not all have the same strengths. And tenure also is based on more than teaching.

Tenure is based on scholarship, and so, the tenure-decision is basically a decision saying, "Yes, we think this person has continued potential to grow."

Q: Should more emphasis be put on quality teaching before tenure is granted?

A: It varies by institutional type. At Towson, we put a great deal of emphasis on teaching before tenure is granted.

But at a research university, if you're buying somebody who is going to bring you $1.5 million in research grants and who may be very good with a very small number of graduate students, there's not the same emphasis before tenure is granted. That's because the institution is buying a different set of skills -- and that's where a lot of the complaints about bad teaching have come from. The emphasis is on research, and not on teaching.

More of the problems that we have are caused by human change. For example, you may hire a practitioner -- somebody who knows what the current state of practice [in a certain field] is. In 10 years, the current state of practice will have changed, but they'll still be teaching the same thing.

Q: Would certification of teaching ability, as proposed in the paper you and your wife presented, be an inducement to improve?

A: As much as we talk about improving teaching, the fastest way to do something is to give it more market value.

[That way] a person who is acknowledged as a good teacher would have some sort of national certificate, just like a national publication or research. If you had that, it would help create a national market for teachers, and that way, it would be an incentive.

The closest analogy is medical specialization, in which [doctors or other medical professionals] are board certified.

Q: Is it possible to measure how well a teacher performs in the classroom?

A: That's really where you need peer review, because what constitutes a good teacher depends on how an individual connects with students.

L Q: Instructors also should evaluate how well they are doing?

A: A lot of faculty take teaching very seriously, and they do follow up.

One of the most frustrating things about teaching is that sometimes it's like pitching a stone into a bottomless well. You never hear a splash.

But you want to hear a splash -- it could be good or bad.

Q: In the last 20 years, have students' expectations changed? Has television created a student who wants to be entertained?

A: There is some influence of television. Last year, some of the faculty and even the campus ministers were saying students act like their class is a TV program. Students will get up and walk out.

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