|Qualities of Top Teachers
Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
Ideally, every exercise professional has had the opportunity to experience an extraordinary teacher at some time in his/her learning life cycle. What particular aspect(s) of that teacher touched you in a way that made such a lasting impression? And now, perhaps essential to you as a professional, how can you impact your clients in a similar way? This column will look at some main characteristics of highly effective teachers (see Figure 1 for other qualities). It synthesizes the years of research of Dr. Ken Bain (2004) in which he studied many excellent teachers on several college campuses in America. It should be noted that highly effective teaching isn't as simple as a list of things to do. It is much more elaborate and multifaceted, but definitely can be learned. Each exercise professional must be self-reflective with the topics presented below and be willing to make changes and shifts in their own thinking about excellence in teaching to truly attain it.
What is Excellence in Teaching?
In his book, What the Best College Teachers Do Ken Bain describes excellence in teaching as having students learn in ways that create and sustain a positive influence on how they think, act and feel. Bain also notes that it is possible that a person can be a most successful teacher when working one-on-one or in a small group (as with personal training), but much less effective in big groups (such as in teaching group x classes). As well, a teacher may achieve excellence when instructing highly skilled clients but be much less effective when training beginning clients. Therefore, although excellence in teaching is a defined construct, it does not transcend to all learners, fitness levels and/or special populations. Throughout this column an attempt is made to provide examples of highly effective teaching as they relate to the exercise profession. So, what do the greatest teachers do?
The Best Teachers Really Know their Subject
As Bain (2004) exclaims, the best teachers, without exception, know their subjects exceedingly well. As well, the best teachers are well-rounded in their education. For example, they don't just know the performance techniques of each exercise. They have a strong grasp of the history, controversies and the foundational theories of their profession. Bain continues that excellent teachers use this broad-based knowledge to develop different ways each client can learn.
Outstanding Teachers Plan Backwards
Bain (2004) remarks that excellent teachers engineer an environment where their students are highly engaged to learn. He suggests that the best teachers plan backwards. Effective teachers clearly identify the outcome goals (physical, psychological and behavioral) they want their students to attain and then creatively develop strategies that encourage their students to learn these skills, habits and behaviors. In addition, effective teachers plan for conflicting problems or beliefs how some clients think about exercise, health or weight management. For instance, if a client feels all that is necessary to lose weight is exercise two times a week, the exercise professional must be prepared to challenge the client's knowledge on this topic while still inspiring the client to a different model of belief on weight loss. For example, the exercise professional may need to discuss the contemporary research on weight loss and encourage the client to compare his/her thoughts on the topic with current data. Or, in this example the exercise professional may choose to present a case study of a person who was very successful in weight loss and then ask the client to discuss and evaluate the exercise, nutrition and weight management strategies the individual adopted to succeed. Both examples help clients draw up new conclusions on attaining weight loss success through engaged thinking. Bain suggests that these strategies enable a client to think and grapple independently on a particular belief.
The Best Teachers Expect More from Each Student
First and foremost, excellent teachers focus on each student, not just all clients. In other words, the best teachers look at the unique abilities and characteristics of each client. Then, the best teachers set high standards of achievement for each client while conveying a convincing and honest trust to the client that he/she can achieve these superior goals. The best instructors instill in each client a meaningful sense of confidence and self-responsibility. In other words, the client may come to the personal trainer for an exercise session, but what the client achieves at that training is his/her responsibility. Great personal trainers empower students that they truly are in control of their health and well-being. They have a stirring faith in the ability of each client, and help each student to relax and believe in himself/herself. As a personal trainer you don't teach personal training, you teach each client.
Excellent Teaches Create a Natural Critical Learning Environment
Excellent teachers create an environment that allows students to think, probe, and ask insightful questions. Excellent personal trainers create an environment where the client is fully assured that they are working together positively towards the best possible 'journey of fitness and health' of the client. Great teachers encourage students to self-evaluate and self-reflect on their training experience, not just to listen to the personal trainer. For instance, a personal trainer may demonstrate to a client a squat incorrectly performed (perhaps demonstrating the same errors a client is making on the squat) and then ask the client what he/she is doing wrong. Next, the personal trainer may ask the client how to correct the squat. This type of student-centered learning helps the client better realize the importance of exercise technique and to learn how to problem solve and better understand correct exercise performance. According to Bain (2004), this process leads students to have a better appreciation, understanding and focus on their own learning. Bain summarizes that students learn best when they are trying to solve problems that they feel are important or intriguing.
Great Teachers use Strategies Similar to Good Commercials
Initially, all excellent teachers must capture the student's attention, not to unlike a television commercial. However, unlike a commercial selling a product, great teaches are trying to hold a client's attention for a higher purpose, the improvement of a client's health and fitness level. One of the best ways to hold a client's attention is to focus on what is important to the client. So, if a client is infatuated with getting firmer muscles, grab their attention with content and dialogue about muscle hypertrophy during the training session. If a client is fixated with weight management, share and discuss a recent article (form IDEA Fitness Journal) on successful weight loss.
Great Teachers Get Their Students to Commit
Once a client's goals are determined, successful teachers discuss honestly what the client needs to do to attain these goals. Next, the effective teacher asks the client to decide if they truly want to take on the work and the lifestyle obligations to attain their goal. If so, effective teachers ask the client to commit to their goals and the steps needed to attain them. One of the best ways to help a client commit to goals is to write them out. Having a client write out her/his goals is similar to a client writing a contract to herself/himself. This process often sparks a personal motivation for the client to achieve the goals.
Highly Successful Teaches are Great Communicators
Highly successful teachers practice and rehearse aspects of their teaching in order to improve their communication. Many videotape themselves teaching and critically assess where they can improve. Bain (2004) suggests that great teachers speak with a 'warm language'. They don't dance around the edges of a topic; they speak through the issue. He further explains that great communicators are able to intellectually and emotionally stimulate a client to learn with their effective communication skills. He underscores that they also know how to take complex skills and complicated data and simply and clarify it for their clients.
The Best Teachers Test Themselves
Bain (2004) states that excellent teachers have some type of systematic process to assess their own efforts at teaching. He continues that regardless of the discipline all excellent teachers evaluate themselves along the following four questions.
1) Is the content I am teaching appropriate and worthy to the client?
2) Is each student learning what I am trying to teach her/him?
3) Am I enabling and encouraging the client to learn?
4) Have I done anything to impair my client's ability to learn?
Bain summarizes that effective teachers need to make informed and wise decisions, based on their own self-assessment, about the quality of their teaching if they expect to improve it.
Putting It All Together: Great Teaching is Like a Work of Art
As identified earlier, effective teaching can be learned. Yet, highly effective teachers are like masterful artists. They skillfully and artfully combine definitive knowledge, astounding communication skills, lively discussion and problem-based learning into a successful teaching method. The singular, prevailing goal they all have is engineering the best possible learning environment for each individual client.
This column is dedicated to Gail Sears (1935-2010); one of the GREATEST exercise professionals and teachers Len Kravitz has had the privilege to know.
Bain, Ken. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.