Teaching as an Art Form, Part I

The Elements of Teaching

Over 20 years ago, two college teachers wrote a book about teaching entitled The Elements of Teaching.1 In the book, Professors James Banner and Harold Cannon wrote simply and passionately about what it takes to be an effective teacher, and somehow manage to reduce the key aspects of a complex process down to nine primary elements. In so doing, they provide not only a road map of aspiration for the new teacher, but also signposts of inspiration for the experienced teacher.

In the very first sentence, the authors state their thesis:

Most teachers forget that teaching is an art.2

Of course, they acknowledge - as they must - that no single person can be a great artist in the classroom every day. But they note that most teachers prepare to teach by merely learning the subject they will teach and the methods of teaching that subject, but rarely consider the qualities of personal character that great teaching also requires. It is these qualities that this book addresses, and it does so out of a belief that these dimensions of character and mind are at the core of what we do, which they define as:

To help others acquire both the knowledge by which they can understand life in all its fullness and the dispositions by which they can live such a life.3

This is not a teaching methods book, and because its focus is on the necessary personal qualities of a teacher, it is universal to any subject one might choose to teach. In this newsletter, and the next, I will share with you the nine elements of teaching the book describes, and invite your comments and reactions to them: Learning, Authority, Ethics, Order, Imagination, Compassion, Patience, Character, and Pleasure.

Learning. Of course, one cannot effectively teach a subject without knowing and mastering that subject. But if it ends there, then this element of teaching will be missing or at least be shortchanged. Because, as the authors point out, “learning embodies the act of learning.”4 By that they mean, in showing our students how to learn our subject, we have to be enthusiastic about the act of learning ourselves; and we must keep up with our subject, and be excited about doing so. We must convey the love of learning to our students, even if our subject is not captivating on its own.

Authority. The authors define this element as “legitimate influence over others,” and distinguish it from mere power because, unlike power, authority is reciprocal, and depends on our students giving it to us, as well as our earning it. Authority in the classroom comes from showing a seriousness of purpose, and inspiring their students to believe that it will be rewarding and educational to follow them.

Ethics. Here, the authors refer to teaching that requires “student-centered” ethics at all times. “If the good of our students is not the focus of our attention, they cannot be taught, and are unlikely to learn.”5 What is hard about this, for many of us, is that if students are the focus of our attention, then we are not, and this self-denial is difficult. But it is required. We must be always attentive to our students’ welfare, and be willing to repeatedly make considerable gifts of energy and time to meet their needs.

Order. The element of order requires both authority and leadership. We must have earned our authority in the classroom, and we must be good leaders of it. We are good leaders of a classroom when we are clear with our students about the purpose of each lesson and assignment, and when our teaching has direction and momentum. We also must maintain a tranquil and safe environment for learning at all times. If we get a note from a student at the end of the year saying that we were “demanding but fair,” we know that we have done well in maintaining order.

In next week’s newsletter, I will share with you the authors’ five remaining Elements - Teaching, Imagination, Compassion, Patience, Character, and Pleasure.6

Leave a comment

Letters of Recommendation

Well, obviously, my recommendation this week is the book I am describing: The Elements of Teaching, by James M. Bannon, Jr. and Harold C. Cannon (Yale, 1999). I hope my description of the book this week, and next, intrigues you enough to read it in full.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from an important article about teaching by Okianer Christian Dark that was forward-thinking at the time of its publication:

I believe that the most critical skills that teachers need are related to what is referred to as "good teaching” - the ability to listen, to demonstrate respect for the student, to model professionalism in the level of preparation and treatment of the materials, and to not take yourself so seriously. But most importantly, the teacher must be willing to engage in some risk taking to enhance and enrich the students’ learning experience.7


James M. Banner, Jr. & Harold C. Cannon, The Elements of Teaching (Yale University Press, 1999).


Id., p. 1.


Id., p. 3.


Id., p. 21.


Id., p. 35.


Today’s newsletter - and next week’s - is based on a book review I wrote about this book, which was originally published in Vol. 15, Issue 1 of Perspectives magazine, at pp. 41-44.


Okianer Christian Dark, Incorporating Issues of Race, Gender, Class, Sexual Orientation, and Disability into Law School Teaching, 32 Willamette L. Rev. 541, 543 (1996).