What great teachers do

This post covers material that I have circulated to colleagues and tutors within the UCT College of Accounting and it captures many of my thoughts with respect to effective teaching.  I think it is helpful if you are a teacher, tutor, lecturer or if you are required to give a presentation.  I think it will also up my game now that this information is out there and you can judge me according to my own criteria!

  • More is caught than is taught. If you are not passionate about what you are doing, it’ll be noticed.  A good analogy that I’ll borrow from someone (I forget who otherwise I would reference them) is that of mumps and measles. If you have mumps but go around telling others that you have measles, what are they going to catch after being in contact with you?  Mumps, no matter how convincing your measles argument was.  Words lose their effect over time so make sure you believe your message.
  • Teaching is a dialogue not a monologue. Ask questions while you go along.  Ask the other person to explain their current understanding, give them scenarios with changed variables – it is a risk because the wrong answer may come flying back at you – but that gives you something to work with.  The point isn’t just to explain how things should be.  The point is to find out where the other person is and help them to get to where they need to be.  I still fall into that trap, I can explain what should be happening but often I don’t know enough about the level of understanding that my students have.
  • Read body language. If I see students are exhausted I ask them why (normally there is another test coming up) and that helps me to slow down the pace of the lecture and keep everyone together.  If they are restless I ask them why (normally my slide is skew, they’re bored because they have already covered the work or maybe they are confused because I didn’t add up the numbers correctly).  It takes a brave person to stick up their hand and stop a teacher so it is up to you to read body language before someone needs to put up their hand.
  • Be clear about the purpose of the teaching time. Say at the beginning what it is that you want to achieve.  Having explained what the goal is, explain why it is worth exploring it.  Here is where most of us can improve.  Give people a glimpse of the usefulness of something and then they are more likely to find the motivation to pursue it fully.  Grab recent newspaper articles, share war stories – prove that it is a worthwhile pursuit.
  • Be interesting. Life is interesting and this should be emphasised!  If the learning process becomes boring, it should be put out of its misery.  If I am one day a course convenor I am going to make that the number 1 criteriafor a tutor – is this person interesting?  Even if you stuff up the debits and credits every now an d again, if you can motivate students to be interested in the subject, that is good enough for me!
  • Give people different to you a chance to air their views. There exists a bias for all of us to teach in ways that we think are effective – we teach the way we want to be taught.  In a country as culturally diverse as SA it is important to recognise there will be differences.  Be aware of this.  Ask for feedback from specific people during the presentation (more likely afterwards though when the person feels less pressure to say nice things!).  We each have our blind spots and the sooner you find them the better.
  • You can’t be all things to all people. Some people will think you suck. Deal with it.
  • Use visual aids and analogies people can relate to. Years from now people will remember the time you dressed like a mineworker when you taught mine accounting (something I didn’t have the guts to do but another person I know did!).
  • All learning doesn’t happen when you are on the scene, often it happens once people get to spend time on their own. This is a principle that gives me great freedom – I hope it is true!  Basically it helps me not to be pressured to squeeze every ounce of teaching into a 45 minute slot.  Rather I see it as a time to cover what needs to be covered but also to point towards other applications, other resources, and new ways of seeing the issue.  People need to take responsibility for their own lives and it isn’t my job to fill them up with knowledge.  I love the graph my old tax lecturer Keith Huxham drew for us.  On the X-axis there was the capacity the student had to grasp concepts and on the Y-axis was the amount of work they were prepared to put in.  If the student was bright and worked hard, nothing the teacher could do would make them fail.  On the other hand if the student was slow to grasp concepts and was unprepared to work, nothing the teacher could do would make them pass.  He therefore didn’t really aim at either of those 2 groups in lectures!  His focus was on motivating bright students to work harder and also he tried to give insight to hard working students that were struggling to get that “eureka” moment of understanding.  I still think of that graph as an excellent tool for the teacher!

I am at no point trying to be prescriptive with the above advice.  Use whatever is helpful and feel free to add to the list.

Paul Maughan


  1. Recently took up tutoring and it’s been a really tough learning journey. I thought it would get easier, but it seems to get tougher with each tutorial. I want to add value to my tuttling’s learning, but I struggle to gauge whether I am actually doing this or not. I wonder if tutoring is meant for some people and maybe not so much for others – like me 🙁
    But thanks so much for this Paul, it really helped put things in perspective for me.

    • I hear you Khutjo! Is learning really taking place? Look for body language, are they getting it? Don’t beat yourself up because this will not happen every time and with every student. Good honest reflection after every tut (What should I stop doing? What should I keep doing? What should I do more of? What new thing should I try?) will raise your game. Strength to you!

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