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The Gift of Great Teaching

By President Thomas E. Cronin

Teachers matter, and inspirational teachers can profoundly influence us. Such teachers give us a splendid sense not only of who they are, but more important, of who we are, and who we might become.

Exceptional teachers not only "know their stuff" and have a passion for learning, they also say and do things that unlock our energies, imaginations, and creative impulses.

Memorable teachers are enthusiastic about their subjects and teach with a joy and intensity that are often contagious. Time and again, former students recall their best teachers as those whose special quality was their robust enthusiasm for what they taught. What touches our hearts is a professor's personal devotion not only to Plato, Shake-speare, Beethoven, Joyce or genetics but also to learning and searching for understanding.

Great teachers "bring their subject home." They are somehow able to relate abstract ideas and theories to the realities of everyday life. They often understand, as Jefferson did, that a liberal education is a training ground for citizenship, a means to acquire discernment, judgment, and tolerance and learn the arts of civility and self-governance.

Great teachers may not be able to inject courage into students as a physician injects a vaccine into a patient, but they can explain the critical role courage plays in scientific, artistic, and public policy breakthroughs.

Our best teachers convince us that the greatest mistake one can make is to be afraid of making mistakes. They encourage us to learn from mistakes, overcome the fear of failing, and avoid the paralysis of perfectionism. Sometimes they share their own fears and failures and how they moved beyond them.

The best teachers often are demanding — the type we learned to appreciate years later. They teach up, not down. They convince us we can work a lot harder and be more disciplined and that we should always be trying. They challenge us to question conventional wisdom and especially to confront our own prejudices.

Gifted teachers not only talk to us, they listen to us. They are willing to make time to offer advice and make suggestions. Part of the magic of great teaching comes from the simple reality that implicitly, if not explicitly, excellent teachers let us know that they have high expectations for us.

Many students are waiting for someone to light a fire under them. "When people don't know what harbor they are headed for, any wind will do," goes an old sailing adage. This is where a demanding, challenging teacher or adviser can make a huge difference. A great teacher grabs us, motivates us, and by lectures, discussions, questions, assignments, feedback, and force of personal-ity challenges us to discover ideas, opportunities, and fields about which we can get excited.

One student once told me he had just had a superb teacher, and I asked why he was so impressed with this particular learning experience. The student replied:

"Because she stretched us. She pushed us in this direction and that. . . . She used to say, gently, ‘Have you thought about this idea? Have you considered this possibility?' But never with a sense of embarrassing you. Yet always trying to get you to think and grow and learn."

Gifted teachers make us see both new and old concepts in a fresh light, fresh way, fresh context. They are constantly raising questions and emphasizing that asking the right questions is often more important than having the answers. They ask about what is worth knowing. They encourage us to reason, to be skeptical, and to challenge simplicity and be open to complexity.

The best liberal arts colleges are dedicated, above all, to the encouragement of learning and teaching excellence. The genius of Whitman College over the years has been its gifted faculty who have taken a keen interest in students and who have made a lasting difference in the lives of these students.

Dr. Stephen B. L. Penrose, Whitman College's legendary third president, aptly noted that the measure of the successful professor is not popularity, "but rather the stirring of pupils' minds and the awakening of that intellectual curiosity and wonder and reverence which mark the genuine scholar."

Finding, strengthening, and rewarding gifted professors remains today, as it was a hundred years ago, the highest responsibility for those of us who have the privilege of leading Whitman College.

This Whitman magazine celebrates 15 influential, long-time, former Whitman College professors who were especially noted for gifted teaching. This is hardly an exhaustive or definitive list of great professors, but rather an illustrative group fondly recalled by former students asked to write about such teachers. Please let us know, by letter, fax, or email, about your stories of memorable Whitman teachers, coaches, and advisers. And please join us in thanking both former and current Whitman professors who so often have gone "above and beyond" in their dedication to Whitman College students.

Tom Cronin

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