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Four Essential Keys to Successful Teaching

Qualities that all teachers should strive for

As a teacher for the past 20+ years, I’ve come to develop a pretty clearly defined philosophy of teaching. I think my teaching is pretty principled (meaning that it is based on a set of specific principles), and on occasion, a student (or alumnus) will come up to me to let me know that whatever I did worked. Of course, this means a ton to me.

I recently had an alumna email me with a note saying that I inspired her during her time as a college student here—during a particular period in her academic career that was pretty rocky. Reading what she said now got me thinking: What exactly did I do to help inspire this bright, hard-working, incredible young person who, to my good fortune, ended up in my classes? Partly, I think I let her know that I thought she was bright and hard-working. Perhaps that’s a key to helping motivate people to achieve their best.

Student Success: The Currency of Teaching

As an educator, helping others succeed is my primary job. How do I succeed as a teacher? Well I see success in my students’ academic development, that’s how. If I teach a difficult class and give a high-level exam and 90% of the students work really hard and ace the exam, showing that they fully get the material that we’ve gone over, then I feel pretty successful (although I do worry about the other 10%). If I teach a graduate student how to design a survey and conduct advanced statistical methods—and then come to find that same student is effectively conducting his or her own statistics for his or her master’s thesis?! ... And beyond that, I come to see this same student tapped as a resource by other students when it comes to information about statistics?! Yeah, that’s success—and that makes me proud. I thrive on student success in all capacities. That’s the currency that underlies my work. My students' success = my success.

Based on my decades of teaching at the college level, here are some of the secrets of the trade—tools to helping cultivate success in our students:

1. Put your students on equal footing as yourself. Intimidation is not a great tool in cultivating success. Having students see you as some really important, special person who has access to some kind of secret knowledge?! No need. In ancestral conditions, people learned most of the information they ever got from peers (see Gray, 2011). Steps that some teachers take to build a wall between little old student and powerful, omniscient teacher are steps that get immediately in the way of effective teaching.

2. Truly believe in your students—and let them know that you believe in them! A core step in succeeding at some task is the development of self-efficacy (see Bandura et al., 1996), the belief that you can actually do some task. If you don’t think the task is within your grasp, then guess what? You’re probably going to fail even if you are absolutely brilliant in all regards. Actually believing in your students’ capacity for success builds in beneficial expectation effects that can help foster success. And, related, getting your students themselves to believe the same about themselves—well that’s literally the key. If there is a secret to success as a teacher, it is that. Get your students to believe that they can handle the work and they will rise to the occasion.

3. At all times, remember that your students are 100% human. So if a student fails an exam, forgets to hand in a paper, says something obnoxious in class (this does happen from time to time), etc., remember that how you deal with it is up to you. If you deal with such transgressions by getting the student to feel ashamed, you run the risk of crushing his or her spirit. If you take a fully human approach to dealing with the problem, then there is still a chance that you’ve got the capacity to help educate this person successfully. And never forget, that is your job! I’m not by any means saying “give extra points to be nice” or to provide “newly created extra-credit assignments” when students mess up. I’ve never done either of those and, in fact, I don’t suggest that anyone ever does. Rather, when a student messes up, think about the fact that you’ve messed up yourself thousands of times in your own life (it’s just got to be true!)—and think about how at times, you could have been built up rather than torn down after failures. A splash of empathy goes a long way. Then go ahead and help build that student up.

4. Be there for your students—literally. If you’re a teacher at any level, you have tons of obligations. It may be hard to make individual time for any particular student. But you know what, from the perspective of each and every one of your students, each is a person just like you are—and you have the potential to leave a positive mark on the future of each one. At work, I tend to sign dozens of forms a day, I have lots of meetings with deans, other professors, who knows who, etc. And more. But I’ll tell you this, when a student stops by the office, it’s pretty rare that I don’t drop everything and say “what can I do to help you?” I’m not perfect at this by any means, but I do have a guiding principle in dealing with students—and that principle simply is this: “Students come first.” Students are the reason that I am fortunate to have this pretty-cool job in the first place. Being welcoming and helpful to each and every student is a goal that I strive for every day—it has the capacity to help students feel empowered—and having your students feel empowered is a critical step toward their success.

If you are a teacher (in either a formal or an informal sense), then cultivating student success along a variety of dimensions is the core outcome that defines your own success. It’s an amazing field to be in. I’d way rather be working all day to help bright young people come to believe in themselves and succeed than just about anything else.

If you’re a teacher, I suggest that you take a look at your own guiding principles—lay them out—and think about how each such principle has the capacity to facilitate successful learning on the part of your students. At the end of the day (literally), if you can think of even one instance in which your work helped build up a student and succeed in some academic outcome, you’ve had a good day at work.


Bandura, A.; Barbaranelli, C.; Caprara, G. V.; Pastorelli, C. (1996). Multifaceted Impact of Self-Efficacy Beliefs on Academic Functioning. Child Development, 67, 1206–1222.

Gray, P. (2011). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.


I dedicate this piece to Kimberly, a shining star against a backdrop that is, in life, too-often characterized by despair. Kimberly, although you graduated a while back, you continue to inspire me every day.

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