What makes great teaching?

— Jeanne Slattery

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A scene from Nothing Left to Tell (four plays by Samuel Beckett). . All photos by Myra Bullington

What makes great teaching? In the last 20 years I’ve seen many different faculty in the classroom and, in my attempt to answer this question, have come up with many different answers, although some of these show up repeatedly.

I recently watched Nothing Is Left to Tell, four very short plays (one repeated) by Samuel Beckett. This is not a theatre review, so I’m not going to discuss the brilliant costuming, the frustrating lighting (frustrating in a good way), the crisp and round sound of the Voices, amazingly rapid and engaging monologue by Hayley Bowders, or even my attempts to find meaning and make patterns in the meaningless repetitions in Beckett’s plays. Those are outcomes; I’m interested, here, in the process.

I adored Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when I read it 40 years ago, but these plays make Godot seem linear and meaningful (it is nonlinear and absurd). I assumed that these plays wouldn’t engage these students.

Rob Bullington (right) with his students during talkback. Photos by Myra Bullington

Rob Bullington (right) with his students during talkback. Photos by Myra Bullington

I was wrong. During the talkback following the play, Rob Bullington, director, and a dozen or more actors and technical staff spent a half hour or more responding to questions from the audience. The cast fairly buzzed with excitement as they discussed the play and the rehearsal process. Chloe Saccol, dramaturg, discussed her research on Beckett which enabled her to become a walking encyclopedia for the cast and crew, thus strengthening the play.

By way of explanation, Chloe is in one of my classes this semester. I believe she has talked in class only once, and then only when I asked her if she was in Nothing (I knew she was a Theatre student). Imagine my surprise in the talkback as I listened to her excitedly discussing how Ohio Impromptu gained its name; Beckett’s relationship with James Joyce, on which Ohio Impromptu, seemed to be in part based; and the way that a knock on the door was accidentally incorporated into one of Joyce’s books by Beckett. She may have been one of the most outspoken during the talkback, but many or most of her peers shared her excitement.

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Members of cast on stage during talkback. All photos by Myra Bullington.

I’m a good teacher, maybe even a very good teacher, but I haven’t gotten Chloe to light up in the same way. How did Bullington do this? I think he did several things. First, I would imagine that she is highly motivated to learn about Beckett—or anything theatre-related. He put her in an environment that made her heart soar. Second, she was given an important role in an important task (I’d never heard of a dramaturg before, but doing it was clearly important to her). Many of her faculty members also had roles in bringing the play to fruition. Third, Bullington—and the other Theatre faculty and students—listened closely to her (and the other students), taking her ideas seriously. Finally, other people also valued what they did: a large number of students, alumni, and Theatre faculty were at this performance, passionately talking about the play, staying even through the talkback.

Research on teaching has recently focused on high-impact practices (e.g., internships,

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Rob Bullington (right), listening to a cast member respond to a question from the audience. All photos by Myra Bullington.

student research, first-year seminars, study abroad experiences, etc.), in part because these teaching strategies increase engagement, student retention, and graduation rates, especially amongst minority and other underserved students (Kuh, 2008). Clearly, pulling together a student play is a high-impact practice.

Clayton-Pedersen and Finley (2010) identified three strategies for upping the octane in high-impact practices: meaningful interactions with faculty and other students, student reflection on their work, and intentional connections between learning goals and teaching processes. While it wasn’t clear during the play and talkback to what degree Bullington and the other faculty working on this play intentionally related student tasks with learning outcomes, it was clear that plays and rehearsals are rife with opportunities for meaningful interactions and significant reflection about their work by students.

It seems that recent conversations on education have overly focused on job skills while overlooking the most important things we want to develop. While teaching, we should find material that students will engage with and be excited by, in Chloe’s case, theatre. Once we’ve discovered that, we can easily identify and build all of the skills that we want our students to further develop: written and oral communication, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, confidence, curiosity, commitment, and analysis.

Well done, all!

References

Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., & Finley, A. (2010). What’s next? Identifying when high-impact practices are done well. In J. E. Brownell & L. E. Swaner (Eds.). Five high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter (pp. 9-11). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/leap/hip.cfm/

Thanks to Melissa Downes for her insightful comments on earlier drafts of this blog.


Jeanne Slattery is a professor in the psychology department at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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