10 Ways to Spot Great Teachers (and Avoid Crummy Ones)


Do this

Do this

Not this

Not this

Truly bad teaching is pretty easy to spot, because learners don’t improve, and don’t feel connected.

Truly great teaching is pretty easy to spot, because learners improve rapidly and feel connected.

But perhaps the hardest to spot is a particularly nefarious type of teaching called pseudoteaching. It looks and feels like good teaching, but in fact it’s a mirage.

The term comes from teacher and blogger Frank Noschese, who writes about pseudoteaching here and here. What I like best is how open Noschese is; how he reveals that we are all guilty of it sometimes. As he writes:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.

I can definitely relate. A few years ago in Chicago, I taught a class in magazine writing and also coached Little League. In both I made the exact same mistake: I thought talking well was the same as teaching. I rarely connected to individuals, preferred talking to the big group. I approached teaching as if it were an eloquence contest: the more compellingly I talked, the better I thought I was doing. I didn’t realize that teaching is about interaction, not just action. I didn’t realize that good teaching happens in the space between the teacher and the learner.

With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to offer the following field guide:


  • 1) PT delivers long, entertaining, inspiring lectures; RT designs short, intensive, learner-driven sessions
  • 2) PT is eloquent and expansive; RT is concise and focused
  • 3) PT addresses large groups; RT connects to individuals
  • 4) PT doesn’t focus on small details; RT is all about details
  • 5) PT is about talking more than watching or listening; RT is about listening and watching more than talking
  • 6) PT is loudly charismatic; RT is quietly magnetic
  • 7) PT is Robin Williams leaping atop desks in Dead Poets Society; RT is John Wooden, teaching his basketball players how to put on their socks properly (no wrinkles, because that causes blisters)
  • 8) PT dismisses questions; RT craves them
  • 9) PT treats everyone the same; RT tailors the message for each learner
  • 10) PT delivers the exact same lecture over and over; RT customizes each session for its audience

Next question: what else belongs on this list?  I’d love to see your suggestions or hear examples of pseudoteaching and pseudocoaching. Who knows, maybe John Kessel and his team can make another poster, the way they did with Traits of Good/Bad Sports Parents.

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22 Responses to “10 Ways to Spot Great Teachers (and Avoid Crummy Ones)”

  1. Coach says:

    So if you are a louder person by nature you cannot be a “Real Teacher”? And you can’t teach any large groups and connect to people? I agree with many of these traits, but some of this is way off. You can’t pigeon-hole a “real teacher” and a “psuedo teacher”…everyone is different. Being “quietly magnetic” is not exclusive to real teachers. I’ve seen plenty of loud people that were excellent at connecting with players individually.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Coach — you make a good point. Some of my most effective and impactful teachers were not exactly quiet types (yes, I’m talking about you, Mrs. Simmons). I’d say that this isn’t about fixed types of people — it’s about styles. As Frank writes in his blog, it’s entirely possible for an effective teacher (like him) to be guilty of pseudoteaching occasionally. So it’s not so much about identifying real teachERS as it is about real teachING.

  3. John Golden says:

    PT focuses on what the teacher is doing. RT focuses on what the learner is doing.

    I’m a little uncomfortable with some of the descriptions. The John Keating character in DPS is showy. But his students are immersed in poetry and it affects their lives. That’s pseudo teaching? The measure is not what the teacher did, but what the students got out of it. Maybe that was what was needed to break through their preconceptions. Similarly, John Wooden probably broke many other of these rules by lecturing about socks. So what made for learning? He had successfully identified a relevant goal.

    RT identify specific goals for specific learners, PT identify goals for hypothetical or generic students.

  4. Todd says:

    Coach, djcoyle…fascinating read and thought on this idea.

    As I reviewed the list it seemed that the purpose or intent of “pseudo-teaching” and “real-teaching” may be different. As an educator and coach it is important for us to the consider that “the one who is doing the talking is doing the learning.”

    Hence the intent that is behind the two different types…am I spewing my knowledge to others to assure they know how smart I am (“pseudo-teaching?”, or am I facilitating opportunities for others to learn through inquiry, play, research, etc. while I confer, listen, ask questions, etc. (“real-teaching?”).

  5. Bryce says:

    What’s missing from this discussion, and that helps address the issue raised by “Coach” in the post above, is a discussion of what “real learning” looks like. Clearly, teaching and learning are closely linked, but if we understand what good learning looks like (and, more importantly, how it happens), it becomes a lot easier to answer the question of what good teaching looks like. The challenge with teachers who are loud and prone to perform is that they don’t create a space for learners to do the things they need to do in order to get something from the lesson. If a “loud teacher” can connect with individuals and provide a space where they can really engage in the learning process (rather than listening passively to a loud, impassioned speech), then great. But, big personalities sometimes get in the way of good learning because it becomes more about what the teacher is doing than what the learners are doing, which is much more important.

  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey John, I hear what you’re saying. I am allergic to the showiness of the John Keating character (or maybe it’s just Robin Williams I’m allergic to!) but you’re right — there’s no doubt that those kinds of teachers (and teaching) plays a vital role in connecting students to the world and opening them up. I really like your focus on identifying specific and relevant goals. Which means that RT, among all these other things, is immensely skilled at sensing the students’ particular needs and responding to them.

  7. TC says:

    Perhaps it is also important for us to consider different types of students who have developed different styles of learning. For instance, an Aural learner, with a knack for embracing epic lectures, may prefer a loud, energetic teacher. whereas a social learner may prefer to learn in small group discussions and activities. If this is the case, it is more important for a teacher to recognize the learning habits and styles of individual students than to develop a universally appropriate teaching style.

  8. Bryce says:

    Dan touches on something important above, in that Hollywood likes to glamourize the showy teaching personas like Robin Williams’ character in DPS. This leaves the public, including teachers, with an unrealistic set of assumptions about what constitutes good teaching. I call it educational pornography and have written about it here:


    Flashy, entertaining teaching looks good in movies, but it doesn’t always lead to good learning, and isn’t sustainable for anyone but the superhuman teachers idolized in the media.

  9. Mike says:

    PT is uni-directional (instruction) while RT is bi-directional (teaching). Without interaction of teacher and students

    The following excerpts are from Prof. Keith Devlin’s Blog:
    Instruction is primarily one-directional, from an instructor (we should not use the word teacher here) to the student. Education in the instruction mode proceeds along the lines: first provide information, then give an opportunity to practice, then test.

    The point is, unlike instruction, which is essentially unidirectional and provides no guarantee of learning that which is ostensibly being “taught,” teaching (the real kind) is bi-directional. In fact, you can’t separate real teaching from learning. They are simply two perspectives of the same human interactive process. From the teacher’s perspective it is teaching, from the student’s perspective it is learning.

    I’ve been teaching 15 years and haven’t seen it put or written any better. I know I have days when I do more instructing than teaching and am working towards the day when those days are few and far between.

  10. John says:

    I do not think you are saying it is about being loud or quiet but for PT”s it is about them and not the student.

  11. Adam says:

    Some people reading the above comments are too quick to judge another’s opinion, relax: see the bigger picture here and take something from it. Too many coaches/teachers fail in the category they try to coach/teach in, learning. Learning more about learners in all aspects of life to improve the learners in their field. The best coaches are continuously looking to learn not highlight others deficiencies.

  12. Will Dooley says:

    On a website for soccer coaches, a long and spirited discussion led to the following “20 Questions” list (plus 5 more for Game Day) of things the most effective coaches will be doing. The list has been recommended to parents who are looking for terrific coaching for their child – but who might know little about the sport.

    1. How are players greeted? Is it warm, positive, confident?
    2. How engaged is the coach throughout the session?
    3. How much time are players doing, rather than stopped and listening?
    4. Is everyone on the team being coached? Is there coaching that appears directed to increasing individual player strengths as well as eliminating weaknesses? Does the coaching seem to inspire players?
    5. “Correction is a compliment.” Is correction given in a positive manner that conveys the message both that “I want you to get better” and “I believe you can”?
    6. “What gets rewarded gets repeated.” How much recognition, using players’ names, is given to positive moments?
    7. Is effort and boldness getting positive recognition (and encouragement), or just the outcomes that succeed?
    8. “Doers make mistakes.” Mistakes can make you better. (“Mistakes are good. Struggle makes you stronger.”) Are those kinds of mistakes praised or criticized?
    9. Do sessions seem well prepared? Are activities set up before the session starts? Are players moving with a ball at the designated starting time? Is there good flow from one activity to the next? Does the session end on time?
    10. Watch how many soccer balls are in play. At younger ages, a fair amount of time should be spent “everyone with a ball” or “a ball for two”.
    11. What % of sessions includes some form of 1v1 play? (All should.)
    12. If working on shooting, does it include working on technique or just shooting games?
    13. Overall, does the session seem to be focused more on developing better players or organizing the team for the next game?
    14. “Juggling makes every other touch better.” Does it appear that learning to juggle is encouraged?
    15. Is there any emphasis on exterminating “Useless Weak Foot Syndrome?”
    16. A clue to player engagement: is the practice noisy, or is the only voice that of the coach? Do the players appear to be enjoying their time together?
    17. Watch players’ faces. Do they seem to be enjoying it? Better, do they have that scrunched-up-face look that comes with total focus and involvement?
    18. What’s the tone of the end-of-the-session (or end of day) summary? Does it efficiently sum up what was done and why?
    19. When it’s all done, do the players look satisfied with what they’ve experienced? Do they leave with smiles and happy chatter?
    20. Does the coach leave the same way?

    Now, on Game Day
    1. Whose game is it? Games should largely belong to the players. Does the coach largely “Train and Trust” the players, letting them think and make decisions, or is there a constant stream of instructions that micromanages play on the field.
    2. Is the positive/negative environment of the team the same as at practice, regardless of the score?
    3. Even if you can’t hear what the coach is saying pre-game, half-time and at the end, how would you describe the tone?
    4. What are parents saying/doing on the sideline? It’s amazing how much parental sidelines reflect the influence of and respect for the coach.
    5. Is the post game summary “quick and done”? It takes everyone, including players, time to process a game, so the in-depth stuff should wait until the next practice. (A timely reminder here that one of the things players most dread is the PGA – Post Game Analysis – which happens most frequently on the CRH – C _ _ R _ _ _ H _ _ _*.) Does the coach’s summary end on a positive?

  13. Scottie says:

    PT is communicating the right answer; RT is providing experience for the student come up with the right answer.

  14. Mark says:

    “quietly magnetic” – great phrase! …Perfectly describes the effect!

  15. Scott says:

    PT reduces knowledge to a top-ten list. RT recognizes the complexities and teaches students to recognize them, too.

  16. Robnonstop says:

    When I was a kid I made the same observation covered in the linked article on Pseudo Teaching: The most entertaining lessons with the most engaging teachers could produce as little actual learning as the ones with the most boring self absorbed near centennials.

    I don’t think the MIT professor should be accused of pseudo teaching though. After watching several of his recorded lectures at a time when I was out of school and had mostly given up on trying to get physics into my head, I sent him a couple of emails about color, light and reflection—which interested me for drawing & painting purposes. He personally replied very quickly with easy to understand and very helpful explanations.

    So there I had my personal 1:1 interaction with the famous professor himself, served for me as an individual interested in visual arts. For free. Home delivery.

    Sometimes you just have to ask.

  17. Tom Walton says:

    Terrific list in the comments there by Will Dooley. Though he’s talking football, how many of those apply no matter what subject you teach?

  18. MickRR says:

    Hey Daniel, you gotta do a book on “Flow”, the concept Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been studying on peak human performance since the 1970s.

    Steven Kotler just released his own take on the subject, called “Rise of the Superman”.

    It’s the missing link to many of the aspects to “The Talent Code”, like how less (but more focused) practice can result in faster learning.

  19. doc says:

    Do you think cultural and subcultural differences play any part in this about teaching and subteaching? How about coaches just being themselves? I know loud coaches who are taken well because it is just natural to their personality. Kids can usually tell whether a coach has their best interest at heart whether they are Knight or Wooden. I coached for a “loud” coach early in my career and the kids loved him and stay in touch to this day. Later in his career he was still the loud one but the difference was that his tirades became more personal. I don’t think any of those kids particularly cared for him or stay in touch. Wordy way of saying that pseudo teaching and teaching is more complicated that it looks on the surface.

  20. Marlon says:

    Could eloquent, expansive, entertaining lectures serve to ignite learners’ engagement? If so, then perhaps they could play a valuable role as long as they are followed up by intensive, personalized sessions of detail work.

  21. Bad/weak coaches often get loud when they have nothing to offer. I remember a league (DIII Women’s Lacrosse) championship game where we had diagnosed our oponents offense and tweaked our defense to take away their favorite option. As the game wore on, the coach and the team got increasingly frustrated and the coach got louder and louder including a half-time tirade yelling at her team about their “lack of desire.”

  22. T says:

    The very reason why great teachers or RT are good to great, is because they recognize the need to understand each and every student/athlete as individuals. That said , as an art , they have to know when and how to approach each leaner, so it is not about one style or method. It is about resulting in efficient learning.There is not one recipe,we must teach and learn how to cook.
    Good teachers or coaches are thermometers and great teachers coaches become thermostats.

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