What makes a good instructor? –
“There are three characteristics that make a good teacher – passion, preparation, and humility,” said Dr. Trent Lythgoe, the Command and General Staff College Educator of the Year.
“Passion means having a genuine love for teaching, caring about students, and being enthusiastic about what you are teaching,” he explained. “Preparation means being an expert in one’s field and being prepared for each class—both are critical to establish credibility with students. Humility means that teachers are also learners. They work to improve their weaknesses and embrace mistakes as learning opportunities. Most importantly, humble teachers respect their students.”
The college named Lythgoe, LTCOL Paul Mostafa, Australia, Military Instructor of the Year and Dr. Jonathan Abel, Department of Military History, Civilian Instructor of the Year as its top instructors for this academic year. The faculty members will represent CGSC in the annual Training and Doctrine Command Educator of the Year competition. The three were recognized in a ceremony on March 6, 2023, in the Eisenhower Auditorium of the Lewis and Clark Center.
During the ceremony CGSC Foundation President/CEO Rod Cox presented each of the awardees a College chair on behalf of the Foundation board of trustees and all of its supporters as part of its annual programs to recognize excellence in the College’s faculty and student body. Cox explained the Foundation’s intent and thanked the assembled group for the opportunity before making the presentations.
Naming of the top instructors is the culmination of work that began in the fall. CGSC schools and departments submitted their nominations for the honors early in the academic year. During the past several months, the CGSC selection panel observed classes, reviewed nomination packets, and interviewed those nominees. The selection panel met Jan. 5 and chose the three winners.
Dr. Ric Killian, Assistant Dean for Faculty & Strategic Initiatives, explained the process. “In short, we conduct the CGSC Educator of the Year competition as a member of TRADOC’s Instructor of the Year competition. There are seven nominating categories in the TRADOC competition. This year we decided to maximize our participation by submitting nominees in the following categories: Educator of the Year, Active Duty Officer Instructor of the Year, and DA Civilian Instructor of the Year.”
Each instructor said being named among the top educators is a humbling experience. “I think it reflects highly on both the faculty development division and senior faculty of the schoolhouse who have coached and mentored me since arriving here in January 2021,” said Mostafa. “Being recognized is an affirmation of the excellence of the best military history department in the world, and it’s an affirmation of my own work within it,” added Abel. “I’ve had the opportunity to watch most of my DMH colleagues teach, and they’re all amazing instructors,” he said.
Lythgoe noted the quality of the CGSC faculty, “There are some exceptional instructors at the CGSC. So, to be recognized as one of the top instructors is really an honor. However, he recognizes the honor comes with responsibility. “I’ve always looked to the top instructors to see what “right looks like.” Now, other instructors will expect that from me. More importantly, students will expect me to bring my “A” game to every class. So, while I’m thrilled to receive this recognition, I view it as an obligation to continue to improve rather than an invitation to rest on my laurels.”
Continuing to improve is a common theme among the three awardees. “In reality I have been “honing my craft” since I joined the Army” said Mostafa. “Being an effective instructor in the adult learning environment is really about being an effective leader. Building teams and creating a climate of trust are essential to facilitating and enabling our students to optimize the learning experience, these are functions of leadership.”
Abel said attending FDP [Faculty Development Program] sessions within CGSC or DMH, expanding personal reading and research beyond his field, regularly talking with colleagues to see what’s working for them in the classroom and whether he can use their techniques are all part of his professional development.
“I would say the most important thing is student feedback,” said Lythgoe. “I solicit student feedback in every course I teach—both during and after the course. Students are by far an instructor’s best resource for understanding what works in the classroom. My students are not shy about telling me how I can improve, and whenever I can, I incorporate their suggestions into my teaching.”
“If I could give one piece of advice to new instructors,” said Mostafa, “It would be to invest time in getting to really understand your students. Putting people first is an approach common to both our armies. If you understand what motivates the students professionally and personally then you can create the conditions for them to get the most out of their time at the school.”
Lythgoe said there are two student-centered best practices that have worked particularly well for him. “The first is creating psychological safety in the classroom,” he said. “Students learn best in a classroom environment that is safe for risk-taking, admitting mistakes, asking questions, and offering new ideas. Psychological safety also enables students to have the difficult conversations necessary to develop and learn. They are ok with substantive disagreements, and they give each other tough, honest feedback.”
His other best practice is crafting teaching plans around a value proposition. “My students are adult learners, and adult learners always ask (explicitly or implicitly), “Why should I care?” So, it’s important to start every lesson with a value proposition that answers that question. When adult learners care about a lesson, they are much more likely to focus and learn,” he said.
“One of the most effective techniques I’ve adopted over the last few years is to ask less specific questions in classes,” said Abel. “Asking more general questions like “what did you make of this reading?” helps students reach learning objectives and cultivate their own understanding and analytical skills, which is the ultimate purpose of a history education.”
All of the awardees said the faculty at CGSC was excellent and had ideas on how to continue that excellence. “Like most things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Prioritizing the posting of our best people into CGSC as instructors will result in Army, the Joint Force and our international allies and partners getting the best possible graduates,” said Mostafa. “Gen. McConville has told us that people are the number one priority, and quality professional military education is one of the most effective ways to invest in them.”
Abel added, “I believe the most important action CGSC can take to recruit and prepare instructors is to better advertise the excellence of the education and instructors here. Having a more visible and accessible internet presence would help to highlight both of those elements to those outside the Army. This would likely have the added benefit of increasing diversity within the ranks of instructors in several important ways. This is particularly important at the CGSC where our students are experienced, capable professionals.”
Passion, preparation, and humility, the three characteristics that make up a good teacher, was Lythgoe’s focus. “If I was in charge of replacing myself, those are the things that I would look for in my replacement,” he said.