Teaching as an Art Form, Part II

The Elements of Teaching

Last week I introduced you to a book about teaching that I admire, written by long-time college teachers James Banner and Harold Cannon. They outline nine critical elements of teaching, and I shared some details about their perspectives on the first four of those: Learning, Authority, Ethics, and Order. In today’s newsletter, I will share their perspectives on the remaining five elements that they articulate in the book: Imagination, Compassion, Patience, Character, and Pleasure.

Imagination. Banner and Cannon remind us that effective teaching requires great imagination, and not occasionally, but nearly continuously. Good teachers must be able to imagine themselves in their students’ place and to help them imagine being in a place of greater knowledge and understanding than they might be at the time of your class. In this section, they quote the 19th Century Harvard psychology professor William James, from his Talks to Teachers:

In teaching you must simply work your pupils into such a state of interest in what you are going to teach them that every other subject of attention is banished from their minds… and fill them with devouring curiosity to know what the next steps in connection with the subject are.

There are days, of course, when this seems unattainable. But if we have the requisite imagination to anticipate the needs and reactions of our students, if we can imagine more engaging and effective ways of presenting our subject, if we can be creative and excited about our teaching, then we will go a long way toward achieving Professor James’s lofty goal.

Compassion. The authors remind us that the original Latin components of the word literally mean “suffer with,” and thus compassion is inherent in effective teaching, because we must share our students’ feelings of angst, difficulty, and distress in learning what we are charged with teaching them. If we do not, we cannot reach them as effectively, and if we cannot reach them, we cannot effectively assess their particular learning requirements. Perhaps one of the most striking paragraphs in the book pertains to this element:

Anyone contemplating teaching as a profession should consider compassion as a measure of suitability. The physical and emotional toll exacted by teaching will be too much for those lacking it; better by far that they leave the care of the ignorant multitudes to those who find their difficulties and their hunger to learn innately compelling. Those who experience difficulty in accepting the place of compassion in the classroom… or who prefer their working lives to be exclusively intellectual, should avoid teaching altogether and probably consider devoting themselves to less demanding occupations, such as politics or crime.1

It’s OK if you take a moment to let that one sink in.


I am occasionally guilty of saying in class: “C’mon folks, this is easy.” Of course what I mean is to encourage my students to put down their fear of the subject, and embrace it as eminently learnable. But a more compassionate teacher says instead:

Yes, this is difficult; I had a hard time learning it too. But let me see if I can think of another way to teach it so it seems easier to understand.

Patience. In the view of Banner and Cannon, this is the element above all the others that invites and supports learning the most. Patient teachers expect no more from their students than they are capable of, and they give them the time and space to learn, and make allowances for the folly of youth. Patient teachers are willing to “suffer fools gladly.”

Character. If we are authentic in our character, willing to show our humanity and admit errors, we will be more effective teachers. What we bring to the classroom from our own lives outside of class should not be kept from students if it supports our authenticity. We must be sociable and approachable, while still maintaining appropriate distance.

Pleasure. The final element presented by the authors recognizes that many teachers teach because it gives them a particular kind of joy and satisfaction that is hard to find elsewhere in life. Indeed, the authors encourage this by stating that teaching should be work as well as play.

The classroom should be a place for light hearts as well as serious minds.2

Pleasure should also, ideally, be felt by students, since effective teachers are able to create classes when students enjoy learning. While this is not always easy, if students can see that their work is leading to greater understanding of the subject they are studying, then it can be quite pleasurable for them.

In the book’s Afterward, the authors note that while they have separated these nine elements in the writing of this book, they acknowledge that indeed they overlap and interrelate. As they point out, what makes the art of excellent teaching so challenging is that all of the elements they have outlined must be employed not singly or in pairs, but all at once.

Having dedicated two letters to you about this book, it is probably obvious that I hold it in high regard. Recommended - but if you don’t have time to read it, I hope this summary has given you some insight and inspiration. If so, please share it by offering a comment below.

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Letters of Recommendation

My recommendation this week is Professor William James’s book quoted here, Talks to Teachers on Psychology, And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. Not surprisingly, it includes some dated language, and comes with a good helping of late 19th Century privileged white guy blinders, it nevertheless is worth reading for some fairly deep thinking on the responsibilities of the teacher’s craft.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote, from Professor William James, on the importance of teaching through direct observation and involvement in the subject:

Laboratory work and shop work engender a habit of observation, a knowledge of the difference between accuracy and vagueness, and an insight into nature's complexity and into the inadequacy of all abstract verbal accounts of real phenomena, which once wrought into the mind, remain there as lifelong possessions.3 


The Elements of Teaching, p. 89.


Id., p. 121.


Talks to Teachers on Psychology, Chapter 5.